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Health care fight shows tea party tension brewing with Oklahoma Republicans

Though united against the health care law, Republicans in Congress are divided over the tea party demands as another government shutdown looms.
by Chris Casteel Modified: September 15, 2013 at 12:00 pm •  Published: September 15, 2013

Ronda Vuillemont-Smith is a familiar face at town hall meetings in Oklahoma, so Rep. Markwayne Mullin probably wasn't too surprised to see her last month in Henryetta.

Mullin, the freshman congressman, and Vuillemont-Smith, the head of a Tulsa tea party group, see eye-to-eye on many things. They're both eastern Oklahoma Republicans and get-the-government-out-of-my-life conservatives.

But their faceoff at the town hall meeting seemed like a clash of different ideologies. And it was emblematic of the tension between tea party conservatives and many Republican lawmakers that has fractured the GOP in Congress as critical deadlines approach to fund the government and raise the debt limit.

Vuillemont-Smith confronted Mullin over a conservative group's rating of his votes in the U.S. House — the group gave Mullin an “F” — and Mullin wound up teeing off on the tea party.

“What's happened to the tea party is, it's been hijacked,'' Mullin said.

“They're doing nothing more than being obstructionist and costing you and I real money because they can't figure out what they can even accept.”

The intransigence on the part of some tea party Republicans in the House killed a farm bill that ultimately would have saved taxpayers $40 billion, Mullin said at the meeting.

Vuillemont-Smith, president of the Tulsa 9.12 Project, was unmoved.

“What he calls negotiating, we call compromise,'' she said in an interview last week.

What tea party people don't want to compromise on now is defunding Obamacare. They want a bill that keeps all of government running past Sept. 30 but denies money to any activity related to the Affordable Care Act.

House Republican leaders floated a proposal last week to force a vote on defunding the health care law as part of a deal to keep the government running, but it was dropped after tea party lawmakers and groups called it a gimmick that gave the Democratic-controlled Senate an easy way out.

So those leaders — who also hate Obamacare — now have two weeks to decide whether they'll embrace the tea party approach and risk a government shutdown for which Republicans could be blamed.

Distrust of GOP leaders

The Pew Research Center released a poll last week showing that 71 percent of tea party Republicans disapprove of the job Republican leaders are doing in Congress.

That was a steep rise from February, when 54 percent of tea party Republicans disapproved of GOP leaders.

“There has been no similar decline among Republicans who do not agree with the Tea Party,'' the Pew center reported. “Currently, 42 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans and Republican leaners approve of how GOP leaders in Congress are handling their job, which is little changed over the past year.”

Vuillemont-Smith is among those who disapprove.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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