The patch of sand between the White House and the Capitol is so full of lines that have been declared unpassable at one time or another during President Barack Obama’s tenure that it’s sometimes difficult to see who has drawn what and where.
Especially when it comes to the thorny issue of immigration reform.
Take, for instance, the threat by some lawmakers that if the President, using executive action, extended deportation deferrals to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States illegally or offered a path to citizenship, then Congress would shut down the U.S. government during the next budget battle.
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for one, was talking about that very possibility just a few weeks ago.
But now, top Republicans say that two things are clear: Last year's government shutdown hurt the party. And Republicans must not let the president's pending immigration action bait them into a repeat.
But some rank-and-file GOP lawmakers from safe districts don't see it that way. They say another shutdown must be an option if President Barack Obama keeps his promises.
The disagreement may force Republican leaders to quell an insurrection just when they hope to capitalize on what they consider a presidential blunder.
Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said he's tired of conservative pundits criticizing government shutdowns "rather than saying, 'Hey, this could be a good way of holding the president's feet to the fire.'"
Fleming, in language echoed by numerous colleagues, said his constituents "want us to use every tool available to us to stop, or in some way limit, executive amnesty. They think it's unlawful, it's unconstitutional. To them it's shocking."
Party leaders, however, would like to stop such talk.
"We will not be shutting the government down," soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said repeatedly since the Nov. 4 elections.
There's evidence that it's taken congressional Republicans nearly a year to overcome public anger created when a budget impasse led to a partial government shutdown in fall 2013.
"Since bottoming out at 28 percent during the government shutdown," Gallup reported two months ago, Americans' favorable opinions of the Republican Party "are nearly back to pre-shutdown levels." At the same time, a majority still expressed unfavorable views of the party, the poll showed.
Many GOP lawmakers say they want to pass spending bills that would specifically prevent Obama from carrying out his proposed immigration changes. If, as widely expected, the president vetoes such bills, numerous House Republicans say closing the government should be used a last option to force a major political showdown and national debate.
Of course, during the height of a bruising re-election campaign, in an August interview with Politico, McConnell confirmed that his strategy for the coming session of Congress was exactly that.
“We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell said. “That’s something [the president] won’t like, but that will be done. I guarantee it.”
What may be more important than the GOP leadership saying a government shutdown isn’t on the table is that the groups that pour money into the coffers of Republican politicians seem to be saying the same thing.
According to the New York Times, Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political group founded by the Koch brothers, has been holding meetings with GOP lawmakers urging them not to fight unilateral immigration action with a shutdown.
And Americans for Prosperity president, Tim Phillips, wrote an op-ed that counseled party leaders to “carefully develop a strategy” to counter the president’s, according to the Times.
“It is important for the new Republican majority to stay focused on crucial priorities like rolling back Obamacare, passing the Keystone pipeline and other energy initiatives, and passing a free-market budget,” he wrote. “That means not overreacting to executive orders by the president.”
It’s unclear how much Republicans are paying attention.
"I don't think anybody wants a shutdown, but you've got to play the cards you're dealt," Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said. "I don't think that is off the table at all."
Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas said: "If the government is shut down, it will be because the president perhaps vetoes a bill. But that will be the president shutting it down, not Congress."
Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia said Republican leaders are "going to do everything they can to prevent a shutdown," but he stopped short of ruling it out.
"Kowtowing to the president to let him work in a dictatorial manner is not in the best interest of America," Broun said, "and I think we need to do everything possible to prevent that."
Some House Republicans are less reserved. The House should consider impeaching Obama if he gives legal protection to "people who have violated the law," said Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina.
Asked about GOP leaders who say the party will struggle to win presidential elections unless it gains more support from Hispanics — in part by softening its stand on immigration — Jones said, "They're weak!"
"Your concern should be about the future of America and protecting the Constitution," he said, not "the next election."
Republican leaders say these House members view politics through a lens focused on their overwhelmingly conservative districts, not on statewide and presidential elections. These lawmakers can be ousted, the leaders say, only by losing to a Republican primary challenger who attacks from the far right. That encourages them to stay on the hard right.
Obama lost Westmoreland's district by 33 percentage points in 2012. He lost Broun's district by 27 percentage points, Smith's district by 22 points, and Fleming's and Jones' districts by 19 points each.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former House member who opposes a shutdown, said party leaders must "go to those people who are in very safe seats and appeal to their better nature."
Graham said his message to the rank-and-file Republicans is: "I'm not looking to make your life comfortable. I'm looking to make the party viable."
Some Republicans say shutdowns aren't particularly damaging.
"It's true that our numbers did drop precipitously" after the 2013 shutdown, Fleming said. "But they came up quickly, too."
And, he noted, Republicans expanded their House majority in this month's elections, and took control of the Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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