As the congressman holds public question-and-answer sessions with constituents during Congress' summer break, conservatives and GOP loyalists who enjoy significant influence in his western North Carolina district are demanding that he and his House colleagues defund "Obamacare," refuse to raise the nation's debt limit and generally intensify opposition to the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Congress has abysmal approval ratings, and polls suggest that most voters want the divided government to seek out compromise. Yet the no-holds-barred attitude on display here—and elsewhere as other House Republicans hold town-hall style gatherings—offers an ominous forecast of the legislative battles ahead this fall and underscores how little political incentive many Republicans have to reach common ground on issues ranging from immigration to the budget.
The atmosphere has put Republicans like McHenry in a challenging spot. He and others are all but forced to square their criticism of the president with their unwillingness to go as far as the far right wants. In doing so, they risk irking the party's most conservative voters and drawing a primary challenge; many face re-election in districts Obama lost in 2012.
So at nearly every event over the past week, the 37-year-old, fifth-term congressman pre-emptively opened several recent appearances by suggesting that there are limits to the GOP's power, reminding his constituents that "elections have consequences ... (and) this president is in office through 2016." He found himself seeking to delicately explain why he doesn't support a government shut-down or a national credit default, and why there's only so much House Republicans can do to stop funding the health care law given that some of the federal spending is automatic.
Still, at the Lincolnton Chamber of Commerce, about 40 miles outside Charlotte, Keith Gaskill told McHenry he wants to see "more backbone from the Republican Party" against Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and the rest of the executive branch.
McHenry reminded Gaskill that he voted to hold the attorney general in contempt of Congress.
And, when Lincoln County resident Robert Varney insisted that Congress should remove Holder from office, McHenry noted that the Democratic Senate would have to hold a trial.
"Do you really think that would happen?" he asked Varney, who was unbowed.
Varney was among voters who praised Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, tea party favorites who want to deny money for implementing Obama's health care law even if that means not financing core government functions at all after Sept. 30. Others pressed McHenry on whether he would vote to extend the nation's debt limit later this fall.
And a crowd at Lincolnton City Hall erupted in applause when a retired FBI agent from McHenry's hometown declared that "money is oxygen is Washington" and told McHenry that Republicans should "use the power of the purse" to extract what they want from the executive branch.
When constituents pressed him on health care, McHenry noted he voted against the law. But he also tried to convince the most vocal critics of it that shutting down government won't satisfy their concerns.
"No matter how much you dislike government, government does things we need," he said, citing military operations at one stop and noting Social Security at another.
On one hand, he called the nation's borrowing limit a legitimate tool for "leverage" against Obama and Democrats in an overhaul of the nation's taxing and spending blueprint—though he was short on details about his desired changes. Yet when pushed, McHenry carefully added a caveat. "We have to make good on our obligations," he said, tacitly explaining that raising nation's credit cap is about paying bills already due, not future spending priorities.
One pending issue where McHenry made little attempt at nuance was immigration. He assured multiple questioners that the House would act first on a single bill dealing only with border control. But he said, "Under no circumstance will I ever vote for the Senate bill" that includes an eventual path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
McHenry, like others in GOP-leaning districts, still fielded withering critiques from outnumbered Democrats and the occasional independent. But the exchanges usually revealed sentiments in the congressman's favor.
Questioners in rural Polk County lambasted McHenry's vote for a less generous nutrition assistance program that Republicans want to separate from farm subsidies—ending a four-decade precedent for a unified farm-and-food-stamp bill. McHenry insisted that GOP plans won't harm "any individual child" but are aimed at "able-bodied adults who refuse to work," as many nodded their heads in approval.
Asked his thoughts on the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction blueprint— bipartisan recommendations for curtailing expensive entitlement outlays and raising taxes—McHenry called the plan "credible," but quickly added that it has "a number of flaws ... particularly when you talk about raising taxes even higher" than the January deal on earnings higher than $400,000.
At several stops, McHenry asked how many people believe "things in Washington are as bad as they've ever been?"
They're wrong, he said. The worst, he explained over murmurs of curiosity, was "about 150 years ago ... when a congressman walked over and caned a senator." Though he avoided the details, he was referring to an 1856 incident when a pro-slavery House member from South Carolina beat an anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts at his desk. "That," he said, "was the last time our country was this divided."
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