It was mere moments before the government shutdown, and Rep. David Schweikert looked like a man without a care in the world.
The minutes ticking toward midnight, the Arizona Republican stood in statuary hall and searched for words to describe his emotions. It quickly became apparent that neither regret nor reticence was anywhere to be found. Instead, it was something like eagerness — even excitement — that best captured the congressman’s spirit.
“I know it’s not comfortable for a lot of people here, but this is how it’s supposed to work,” Schweikert told National Journal, his eyes wide and his smile broadening.
“It’s supposed to be cantankerous. It’s supposed to be this constant grinding.”
It’s supposed to lead to a government shutdown?
“Well, the one thing that isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, is there’s supposed to be a sense of constant negotiation — you’re constantly working a deal,” said Schweikert, a former county treasurer and state representative. “And this is unlike any dealing experience I’ve ever had — in my county government, my legislature, even my previous couple of years here.”
The difference, Schweikert explained: “We get nothing from the other side.”
Moments earlier, a precession of House Democratic officials — led by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — had trudged slowly into the corridor with a choreographed gloom and settled around the microphones. There, they proceeded to ring in the shutdown and rebuke Republicans for their “planned” shuttering of the federal government.
Schweikert, a conservative elected in the 2010 tea party wave, strode casually into the Capitol’s hallowed hall, a discernible spring in his step. Asked to explain his good spirits, Schweikert hinted that earlier that day he, too, was anxious about the looming shutdown. But then, he said, an eleventh-hour experience replenished his optimism.
“I just held a mini-telephone town hall an hour ago, with a random dial,” Schweikert said, leaning in and rubbing his palms together. “I’m from a fairly conservative district so it’s not a real good sampling. But it was interesting. Somehow, they figured it out.”
Figured what out?
“They’re pissed at the Senate.”
“I think something the left might not have calculated is: This one ain’t like the others,” Schweikert said, referring to the string of fiscal fights that has consumed Congress since 2010. “A lot of folks, with the health care law, they’re fearful that it affects their pocketbook.”
Schweikert and other GOP lawmakers have grown accustomed to receiving mixed reviews during various spending disputes, even in their right-leaning districts. But the constituents Schweikert spoke with around 11 p.m. Monday were overwhelmingly supportive, he said. And moreover, the vast majority of them blamed the shutdown drama on Democrats’ refusal to budge on Obamacare.
“I think they may have screwed up,” Schweikert whispered, nodding his head. “There’s a handful of senators who may have just made a vote that ends their careers.”
Schweikert is but one representative, yet his perspective encapsulates the conservative disposition in the days leading up to Sept. 30. Armed with these two self-assuring sentiments — bottomless support from their constituents, and subsequent exoneration from blame — conservatives have grown emboldened to the point where they are pushing their chips to the middle of the table and betting on the demise of President Obama’s health care law.
Schweikert was utterly cerebral in the minutes before the first government shutdown in 17 years, and maybe a little bit enthusiastic. Not because it doesn’t have real-world ramifications and not because he wanted to see a shutdown. But because Schweikert and other conservatives feel great about the gamble they are taking — and feel no pressure to fold their hand now.
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