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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Republicans take different voting paths, but share same destination

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2013: Within Missouri’s congressional delegation, few members are closer than U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Wagner, who chaired Blunt’s Senate campaign in 2010, often confers with him since she joined Congress earlier this year, said her spokesman, Patrick Howell.

“They talked like two or three times throughout this week” to discuss House and Senate business, Howell said. “They have a great relationship.”

So the fact that the two took different sides on the budget/default bill that passed late Wednesday was no big deal, he said, and won’t affect their common quest going forward – to press for more cuts in federal spending and the debt.

Several Republican activists and consultants offered similar assessments, as they emphasized that Missouri’s Republican congressional delegation is on the same page, even if Blunt cast the only GOP vote from Missouri in favor of the compromise bill that ended the government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling.

Sources say that Blunt had set up a Missouri GOP caucus meeting during the shutdown, so the state’s seven Republican members of Congress were generally aware of how each viewed the issues and why.

But it was Wagner who was the chief target of Democratic Twitter traffic on Thursday, because she voted against the bill but made public comments in favor of one of its chief objectives: reopening government.

Howell said that Wagner objected to the final wording of the bill. “This agreement only resulted in more debt and more spending,’’ he said. “Most importantly, it contained no binding language that would force negotiators to come up with a deal to reduce our $17 trillion debt and work on pro-growth economic policies like tax reform.”

“We could be back three months from now, and nothing could have happened,’’ Howell said.

Wagner also opposed the earmarks for some senators’ “pet projects’’ that ended up in the measure, he added.

Blunt predicts immigration fight will be delayed

Meanwhile, Blunt told reporters Thursday that the compromise bill was not “a very good deal, but the best deal we could get,’’ and that’s why he voted for it.

Characterizing the shutdown/debt ceiling fight as “shock therapy,’’  the senator emphasized in a conference call that he was particularly pleased that the bill “requires a budget conference that I have long supported.”

“It’s clear that the government spends too much and borrows too much,’’ he said, adding that both issues should be “the two main targets’’ for Republicans now that government is back in operation.

“The problem we had for the last 16 days is the kind of problem that you eventually have whenever you don’t do the work that’s supposed to be done,’’ Blunt said.

He repeated his longstanding complaint that the Democratic-controlled  Senate, while it has passed a budget, has failed to pass any government appropriations bills.

A big win for Republicans, he continued, was its success in the temporary deal to keep in place “sequestration” – which restricts discretionary spending. “We are now approaching, for the first time since the end of the Korean War, two years in a row where federal spending actually goes down,’’ Blunt said. “And that’s no small accomplishment.”

He predicted that the public and the press also will now focus on other major matters that have been overshadowed by the shutdown – notably, the continued civil war in Syria and the troubled rollout of the health insurance exchanges called for under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

In the case of Obamacare, Blunt – a longstanding critic – said that the problems have “been widely underreported.” He predicted the next 60 days will give all sides, and the press, an opportunity to scrutinize what’s working and what’s not.

Fallout from the shutdown/debt ceiling, along with the coming budget talks, will likely derail any comprehensive immigration bill before the 2014 election, the senator said.  He appeared pessimistic that President Barack Obama will be able to pivot to the immigration issue, as the president appears to be seeking.

Smith shifts focus from shutdown to re-election

The state’s newest member of the U.S. House – Republican Jason Smith, R-Salem -- had announced before Wednesday's vote that he was voting against the compromise bill, citing the common GOP assertion that it did nothing to cut federal spending.

But Thursday, he was back in his district dealing with political concerns -- and highlighting his opposition to the compromise bill.

Smith rolled out a major announcement detailing top members of his campaign and key endorsements.  State Rep. Todd Richardson, R- Poplar Bluff and Smith's campaign co-chair, declared in his statement that Smith "has stood up to leaders of his own party to force a vote to defund Obamacare..."

The list of supportive officials also include Wagner, who is endorsing Smith even though he’s expecting a primary challenge from Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a fellow Republican.

Smith won a special election in June to represent Missouri's 8th District in southeast Missouri, which also is Kinder's home turf. Kinder had lost out to Smith in the nomination process, which involved the district's Republican leaders.

The actions by Smith and Wagner, some GOP consultants said privately, exemplified how the shutdown/debt ceiling fight plays differently in House districts, as compared to the entire state.

Wagner, said one, is well aware that her suburban district has pockets filled with staunch tea-party conservatives, such as in Wildwood and Chesterfield.

Appearing too moderate could be politically deadly, on a primary level, especially if she's considering a statewide run at some point. (U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will be up for re-election in 2018.)

Overall, Missouri’s six House members had little choice but to vote against the compromise bill, several consultants contended, because of the likelihood that they would have faced challenges from more conservative Republicans if they had failed to cast a “no” vote.

George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, agreed. “If they had voted with the Democrats on this, they would have had a primary challenge in an instant,’’ Connor said.

Blunt likely gained Senate clout

Blunt, on the other hand, “is such a good campaigner, such a good fundraiser,’’ Connor said, that he’s unlikely to face a serious statewide conservative threat -- despite some current sniping -- when he’s up for re-election in 2016.

Connor added that Blunt and Wagner, although both rising GOP stars within their chambers, have to operate differently in order to get ahead.  For Wagner, that means being on good terms with the tea party conservatives and House leadership.

For Blunt, said Connor, he has shrewdly decided to avoid being “an obstructionist’’ like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. 

Blunt “doesn’t throw a monkey wrench into the entire process,’’ Connor said. “In the end, that’s going to give him clout within the institution’’ – and allow Blunt to play a larger role in shifting the Senate's agenda toward the right.

Such differing actions by Missouri’s Republicans in the House and Senate fit in with an observation by David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“What’s politically better for individual members of Congress doesn’t necessary work for the (Republican) party as a whole,” Kimball said. But he also played down any longstanding harm for Missouri Republicans from the Washington shutdown/debt ceiling fight, despite the latest polls signaling otherwise.

“The public generally doesn’t have a long memory,” Kimball said. “There’s a good chance that, by next year, this will be replaced by other things.”

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