RICHMOND, Va. — In the hours after a dysfunctional Congress failed to provide funding to keep federal government fully operational, Virginia’s politicians staked out positions that could affect elections this year and next.
Democrats blamed Republicans they said were beholden to tea party demands that the newly activated federal health care law be defunded. Sen. Mark R. Warner compared watching the debate unfold to “a slow train wreck, something you could see coming.”
Republicans battled that perception and differed among themselves. Some, including those representing major military areas, said they support repealing what they call “Obamacare,” but in a subsequent fight that doesn’t close federal offices.
The gubernatorial campaigns of Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe each continued trying to portray the other as the villain.
On the streets, people like Regina Richmond and Ward Tefft were anything but amused, blaming politics in general and Washington in particular for botching its most basic duty: keeping the government working.
“I think (Republican Gov.) Bob McDonnell summed it up pretty well when he went across party lines to say it’s a miscalculation by (congressional) Republicans,” said Tefft, 42, while he stocked books in the small bookstore he owns and operates in Richmond’s trendy Carytown.
“Non-essential” federal services including national parks and museums, many environmental and financial regulatory agencies and programs that help pregnant women and those with babies buy food were told to close.
Richmond of Henrico County said she wasn’t sure Tuesday afternoon whether her 28-year-old son was among tens of thousands of federal employees deemed non-essential who faced indefinite unpaid furloughs until a Republican-ruled House and a Democratic-led Senate can resolve their differences and authorize appropriations necessary to reopen government.
“It’s time we took an enormous broom and just swept all of them out,” she said, her jaw set and anger in her eyes. “I’m blaming them all. Take Congress as a whole — they’ve done nothing. All Congress is nowadays is a stepping stone for becoming a millionaire.”
She’s among the undecided and unaffiliated voters who will likely determine next month’s gubernatorial election. She describes herself as a Republican on fiscal issues and a Democrat on social ones, and distinguishes between the federal shutdown and Virginia’s constitutional prohibition on finishing a budget with a deficit.
But what played out in Congress leading to Monday night’s impasse doesn’t leave her feeling charitably toward the GOP.
“It’s kind of sad that a small minority of the tea party has taken over the Republican Party and pushed it so far to the right,” she said.
A new poll by Quinnipiac University released Tuesday shows she’s not alone. Seventy-two percent of the 1,497 registered voters surveyed nationally from Sept. 23-29 said opposed closing the government to cut off funding for the Affordable Care Act, even though voters were about evenly split over the law itself. Only 22 percent supported shutting down federal operations to defund the law.
Virginia Democrats launched automated telephone calls Tuesday tying Cuccinelli to the tea party and noting that Cuccinelli will campaign Saturday with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who is leading Senate efforts to defund the federal health care law as a condition for reauthorizing federal appropriations.
Cuccinelli fought back, reiterating that he opposes a government shutdown and accusing McAuliffe of trying to score political points over the shutdown. Cuccinelli did not say whether he believes House Republicans should drop their insistence on defunding or delaying the health care law to make that happen. Instead, he suggested that McAuliffe might shut down state government, based on McAuliffe’s promise not to sign legislation that did not include an expansion of Medicaid as prescribed under the health care reforms.
Other Republicans, however, said the health care issue should be decoupled from restoring government funding. McDonnell, nearing the end of his non-renewable four-year term, called for that Monday. U.S. Reps. Scott Rigell and Frank Wolf called for a vote on a bill that doesn’t condition government spending on defunding the health care law. Rigell’s Hampton Roads district, and Wolf’s district takes in some of the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C. The federal payroll is a major part of the economy in both regions.
Warner, a Democrat who seeks a second term next year, said he believes the GOP has hurt itself by trying to meld two unrelated issues.
“What’s frustrating for me is this is divorced from the underlying cause of getting our balance sheet right. If this was … at least about entitlement reform or tax reform that’s going to generate revenues — issues we still have to ultimately confront — that would at least have some connection,” he said. “But this is a tea party wish list of items they couldn’t get through legislation, through the courts or through elections.”
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