WASHINGTON — As he prepared to leave town on Saturday, the 12th day of the partial government shutdown, Rep. James Lankford was clearly ready for a resolution.
“I didn't want it to get to this point, and I didn't want it to last this long if it did,” the Oklahoma City Republican said.
His colleague, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, expressed cautious optimism on Saturday that Senate leaders would be able to craft a deal that would avoid default on the nation's debt and get the government “up and operational.”
Both men have thousands of federal workers in their districts — at military bases, field offices for federal agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration center. Though most Defense Department civilians have returned to work, other agencies are still mostly shuttered.
Both men saw it coming, and both helped it along.
Over the weekend, they and all House Republicans were relegated to the sidelines as Senate leaders took on the task of negotiating a deal to extend the debt ceiling and reopen the government.
“The grown-ups are now trying to resolve this,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Monday, as the framework of a Senate deal emerged.
Warnings proved correct
At town hall meetings in August, Cole and Lankford warned that the tea party strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act through a must-pass spending bill wouldn't achieve its purpose.
They weren't the only ones. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, has been an outspoken skeptic of the strategy since the outset, saying it would only raise unreasonable expectations and ultimately fail.
At a gathering in Moore, Cole even predicted the sequence of events: The Republican-controlled House would pass a bill to fund all of government except the health care act — also known as Obamacare — and the Democratic-controlled Senate would send the bill back without the Obamacare provisions.
It would then be up to the House, Cole said in August, whether to shut down the government.
“I think politically that's an extremely dangerous thing to do,” he said in Moore. “And I don't think it will work ... I think it will only damage the economy and hurt a lot of innocent people.”
Someone in the audience responded, “It's worth a try.”
Lankford made comments similar to Cole's at a town hall meeting in August, telling a packed crowd that he had “zero confidence” the Senate would go along with the House strategy.
“And I don't like the idea of a government shutdown,” he said.
‘Struggling with the method'
Still, late last month — just days before agencies ran out of operating funds — both men voted with every other House Republican to give the strategy a try. It worked out like they predicted, and the shutdown has now lasted for two weeks.
Asked on Saturday whether he thought he was representing his district's wishes, Lankford said he did.
“People are struggling with the method,” he said. “But they're not struggling with the issues we're talking about.”
He said Republicans were not going to win on defunding the health care law and that the question now was, “How long do you want to stay closed over Obamacare?”
Lankford said the House should vote on any “reasonable” agreement produced by the Senate.
Cole maintained Saturday that every vote he cast in the last couple of weeks was to keep the government open because, technically, the House legislation would fund the government — that is, if the Senate and President Barack Obama would just go along with major changes to Obamacare, which Cole correctly predicted in August they would not do.
Cole said House Republicans may have erred in not changing the focus to the budget and spending levels after their attempt failed to defund Obamacare. The budget is the real issue, he said, and it's the leverage Republicans really have for “achievable” gains since Democrats want to spend more than current law would allow.
“If every fight has to be about eliminating the Affordable Care Act, then we have to win the Senate and the White House,” he said Saturday, echoing comments he had made in the weeks before the shutdown.