As Republicans and Democrats squabble amongst themselves and against each other about how and whether to reopen the government, conservative Republicans in the House and Senate have remained on the same page, at times uncannily.
Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, mascots of the ongoing conservative-driven fight against Obamacare, on Monday floated the idea of passing tightly-targeted budget bills that would keep only certain government programs running. By Tuesday and again Wednesday, House Republicans were bringing such measures to the floor for a vote.
The apparent mind meld is no coincidence.
House and Senate conservatives have formed a caucus all their own, separate and apart from moderate Republicans and their own GOP leaders. Their meetings, held in person and over the phone, have helped the relatively small band of lawmakers maintain a united front and outsize influence in a budget debate that led to a government shutdown.
At the meetings, they have shared information and ideas, developed strategy and discussed how to frame the fight over Obamacare as part of a larger budget debate. They met in person most recently last Monday evening, according to Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa — just hours before the government shut down.
The private pow-wows have enabled conservative lawmakers to coalesce around some of the hallmark proposals of the government-funding fight, including the notion that they could fund government programs one at a time.
“We talked about that in those meetings. ‘Let’s fund the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs), let’s fund the national parks,’” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C. “That idea was embraced in those meetings.”
Before the concept had been crafted into official proposals by the House, it was pitched to Duncan and other House conservatives by Lee, Duncan said.
Regular updates by phone have also ramped up during the budget fight. On a conference call last week, Cruz and Lee urged House conservatives to defeat the plans of House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team to fund the government and put the Obamacare fight off until later negotiations over the nation's debt ceiling. The plan never materialized.
Cruz confirmed to the Washington Examiner at the time that he'd been talking with House conservatives "throughout the process" of the budget debate. His influence with House members had lawmakers complaining that they felt abused by their Senate colleague and provided fodder for Democratic critics like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who charged that Boehner was little more than a "puppet with Ted Cruz pulling the strings."
The meetings aren’t convened strictly for policy discussions, but also double as strategy sessions lawmakers can use to gauge where the other chamber might be headed so they can modify their own course accordingly.
“We hear from senators, ‘Hey, McConnell says the House is never going to do this,’ and we say, ‘Well, the House is about ready to do this,’” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. “Information is a commodity around here, and it’s an opportunity to share information.”
Such coordination is not without precedent on Capitol Hill, though there's more of it during the most intense debates. During high-stakes debt limit negotiations in 2011, a meeting of conservatives in Huelskamp’s office hatched the “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan that would raise the nation's borrowing authority only if it's accompanied by significant budget cuts, spending caps and a balanced budget constitutional amendment.
But the political dynamic on the Hill has changed since 2011, and conservatives in the House and Senate find themselves now with more power to shape their own leaders' decisions. John Boehner, R-Ohio, originally opposed linking the Obamacare fight to the government funding bill, but ultimately gave in to conservatives' demands.
House and Senate conservative lawmakers are not the only ones coordinating, either. A non-government email listserv organized by Cruz’s staff, called “We Win, They Lose,” has been a hive of activity before and during the government shutdown.
Members of the group have engaged in more than 100 email threads during the government funding debate, featuring discussions about legislation and messaging among Tea Party leaders, advocacy groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, conservative media, and like-minded senior staff in the House and Senate.
One thread focused on a dispute over whether to call the government closing “Obama’s shutdown” or “Harry Reid’s shutdown.” They settled on the senate majority leader, and Cruz started using "Harry Reid's Shutdown" as a Twitter hashtag.
Another discussion focused on whether the House should eliminate health care subsidies for members of Congress and their staff, a provision that was later attached to the House’s government funding bill. A few voices on the thread warned it could be shortsighted.
The conversations often play out at the speed of Congress. One thread Tuesday coincided with a House vote on the targeted appropriations bills. Rules required that the bills get a two-thirds majority to pass and Amanda Carpenter, a senior communications adviser to Cruz, started asking about when the bills could be brought up and passed with only a simple-majority vote.
“They'll do that tomorrow, and add a couple bills to the docket,” replied Jason Yaworske, a legislative strategist at Heritage Action.
“And they'll now have the only substantially bipartisan votes on record in this whole thing,” added Connie Hair, chief of staff to Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
In addition to organizing the listserv and leading many of its discussions, Cruz’s staff also use it to organize occasional conference calls.
“The political benefit of this," said one House aide who belongs to the listserv, "is, if you’re Rand Paul’s people, you have an instant, non-stop communication with conservative organizations across the country.”