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Rep. Huelskamp: Tea party GOP lost the shutdown battle, but not the wider debate

October 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., believes that Americans are disappointed with the "status quo" deal Congress passed to end the shutdown. Judy Woodruff talks to the congressman about Republican strategy and rhetoric, another conversation in our series on the future direction of the GOP.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to our series examining the Republican Party’s challenges in the wake of the recent government shutdown battle.

I spoke last night with former Senate Majority Leader Republican Trent Lott, who said his party took a political hit from the fight. A new poll from USA Today and the Princeton Survey Research found 47 percent think Congress would work better if nearly every seat changed hands next year. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed eight in 10 people disapproved of the shutdown, with most blaming the Republicans in Congress more than President Obama.

The House returned to work today for the first time since lawmakers voted to reopen the government.

Republican Congressman Tim Huelskamp from Kansas opposed the funding compromise to end the shutdown. And he joins me now.

Congressman Huelskamp, welcome.

REP. TIM HUELSKAMP, R-Kan.: Good evening.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how would you describe the health of the Republican Party in the wake of the shutdown and the showdown over the debt ceiling?

TIM HUELSKAMP: I presume there are a lot of polls out there. I have been not been watching those. I do look at them occasionally.

But, at the end of the day, Americans don’t like what’s happening in Washington. And they would like change. And the agreement, the deal last week was basically status quo: raise the debt ceiling, don’t cut spending, don’t do anything about entitlements. And I think, at the end of the day, the political establishment won, Americans lost, and they’re upset about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we saw, as I just mentioned, yet another poll out today showing, it’s not just the majority of Americans, it’s the majority of Republicans, even a majority of Tea Party members who say they think it was a mistake to use a threat to not raise the debt ceiling, to shut down the government, and that Republicans made a mistake and hurt themselves.

TIM HUELSKAMP: Well, there are folks that probably went back home trying to explain why they — particularly if they were in the U.S. Senate, did nothing for three years to try to roll back Obamacare.

And I understand the difficulty explaining that. But the Kansans I talk to and the Americans I talk to across the rest of the nation, they’re concerned about the future. They’re not worried about the next election. They’re not worried about a poll. They say, what are you doing about Obamacare to make sure that you make it fair, that if you’re going to give an exemption to big business, Mr. President, give it to the rest of Americans?

That was part of the deal we talked about. They also do not want to increase debt, unless we have the plan to pay it off. And this status quo deal did nothing about that. So, yes, I would be hard-pressed to find anyone that likes the deal that came out of the agreement last week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, given that, though, Congressman Huelskamp, last night, as I mentioned, we interviewed the former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a conservative Republican, who said he did think the strategy of the shutdown was a mistake. And he said it’s time for the Republicans to move off the focus on the health care law and to turn to a more positive focus.

He said it’s time to talk about creating jobs, it’s time to talk about energy, and he mentioned other issues that he said Republicans should be talking about now.

TIM HUELSKAMP: Yes.

And I agree with some of those things that the former senator said. But one thing a lot of folks that used to be in Washington are still here and been here for years don’t understand, that we have $17 trillion of debt. And it’s U.S. senators like you mentioned and others that helped build that debt. It wasn’t a Republican or Democrat problem.

And I’m a member of the Tea Party. And I hear from Kansans they don’t care what the party is. Give us a solution. Figure out a way to reform entitlements. Let’s create more energy. Let’s grow the economy that way. Let’s not raise taxes, like happened in January. Yes, they’re sick of Washington. They’re sick of the status quo and they wish Washington would listen to them. And that was part of the debate.

And I agree. We lost that battle here in Washington, but I don’t think we lost the debate. I think at the end of the day for conservatives, we lost the battle, but we are going to win the war. Just look at the debacle of the rollout of Obamacare. That’s another example of why we have to continue to talk about that law and how bad it is for the economy and how bad it will be for future budget deficits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned those Republicans who disagree with the strategy may be responsible, some of them still serving in Congress.

Do you agree with the strategy, Congressman, of running more conservative Republicans against those Republicans who didn’t support this — the ending the shutdown recently?

TIM HUELSKAMP: I think that might be what occurs, but that is a district-by-district decision, individual decision by candidates.

But, yes, absolutely. I think there will be conservatives that have decided they’re going to run against the incumbent Republican because here’s what happens. Every Republican in the House, and every Republican in the Senate last year, when they ran if — the Senate two years ago or four years ago said, hey, we’re opposed to Obamacare.

But, oftentimes, their rhetoric is not matched by action. And, so, yes, folks will be running against him, but they will just say, hey, do something about it. I know there are folks currently in the U.S. Senate that said, hey, that wasn’t a good strategy, but you know what? They had no strategy, other than giving the president everything they wanted.

And that’s a losing strategy as well. But at the end of the day, we have to focus on growing, have to focus on this massive debt. Do you know this agreement will lock in another $600 billion or $700 billion worth of deficits? That’s no good for any American that I have talked to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you — who do you see, Congressman, as the leader of your party right now?

TIM HUELSKAMP: I think there are a lot of leaders.

I would hope it’s actually Americans, conservatives at home that are engaged in the party at the local and the state level. There are a lot of leaders in Washington. And one thing that’s different from the Republican Party compared to the Democrat Party is we’re not running — run by one person at the top that controls everything or attempts to do so, like the president, but that, you know, there are a lot of folks engaged.

They’re worried about the future. And they have to listen to the people back home. And Republicans get in trouble when they listen to Washington and the insiders up here, rather than the constituents I listen to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there are those Republicans who say the constituents you’re talking about don’t represent the majority of Americans, that that is — yes, it’s a slice of the American electorate, but it’s not the majority, and that members of Congress need to think more about the welfare of the whole country.

TIM HUELSKAMP: Well, if you at Obamacare, it is a great example. Most Americans do not like Obamacare. They certainly don’t like the rollout.

They don’t like massive deficits. They don’t want tax increases. And that’s what they have got for the last year. And for those Republicans and Democrats that say hey, you know what, I’m going to not listen to those people concerned about it, when that’s an overwhelming majority of Americans say, hey, we’re worried about the future, too many politicians aren’t listening, and they’re worried about tomorrow and the next election.

And that — I guess that’s important in the political realm. At the end of the day, they want to see, is Medicare secure? Can they get health insurance? Can they have a job? Twenty-five million Americans want a full-time job and can’t find one, the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression.

Those are the questions on their mind. And they wish Washington would be helpful in making that happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final quick question. Do you think we’re going to see another showdown over health care and a government shutdown potentially?

TIM HUELSKAMP: I do not know. That is a great question. I wish I knew the answer to that.

But with the debacle of the rollout of Obamacare, the only way to avoid that problem is for the administration to announce that they’re going to delay the individual mandate, like they did for big businesses and like they have done for members of Congress. I think that would avoid the shutdown and avoid this debacle that has occurred with this rollout in the last few weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Tim Huelskamp, thank you for talking with us.

TIM HUELSKAMP: Thank you.