WASHINGTON — 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.
“I have no confidence in (House Speaker) John Boehner or (Senate Republican leader) Mitch McConnell,'' she said. “I just feel very disappointed in our leadership. They've been more concerned with the next election than doing what's right.”
In January, freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, who was backed by the 9.12 Project in his upset victory in the primary last year, voted against Boehner, R-Ohio, for speaker. He was one of only nine Republicans to do so; he voted for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., for speaker.
At the time, Bridenstine said he objected to Boehner's role in the 2011 deal on the debt ceiling — a deal that led to last year's “fiscal cliff” crisis on tax hikes and the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester.
Bridenstine didn't end his opposition to Boehner there. According to a Washington Post analysis of seven key House votes this year, Bridenstine was among a small group of Republicans who opposed House Republican leaders on almost every vote.
Mullin, R-Westville, opposed them on at least half. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, voted against the leadership on at least two votes. Reps. Tom Cole, R-Moore, and Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, voted with the leadership on all of the votes.
‘Make our stand now'
Bridenstine has now signed on to legislation that would require defunding Obamacare as a condition for funding the rest of government.
At a gathering with the Oklahoma State Chamber last week, Bridenstine said that it was the last, best chance to dismantle the health care law.
“If we don't do it now, it won't be done,'' he said. “This is just the reality. We've got to make our stand now.”
At week's end, the legislation had 43 co-signers — less than 20 percent of the House Republicans but enough to control the situation if the Democrats remain mostly united against whatever approach Republicans take.
House and Senate Democrats last week said the tea party was intent on shutting down the government.
“We know that the American people are sick and tired of House Republicans pandering to the tea party and pushing us from one artificial crisis to the next,'' said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash..
And Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Boehner “has to break away from those people who are ruining the Republican Party and hurting our country.”
Not surprisingly, Vuillemont-Smith has a different take on the tea party's effect.
“I think the tea party is shining a light on what's wrong with the Republican Party,'' she said. “the Republican Party has a platform but no one seems to want to follow it.”
With Bridenstine and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., she said, “you've got new people in there who are willing to take a stand and do what they said they were going to do.”