The letter behind the shutdown; GOP missive urges defunding of Obamacare

photo People walk near Capitol Hill in Washington.


U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann withholds pay during shutdown

"Have Your Members of Congress Signed the 'Defund ObamaCare' Letter? Find Out Here!"

So reads an Aug. 14 article posted on the website of FreedomWorks, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group that "has done more than any other organization to build the Tea Party movement," according to a 2010 New York Times article.

Leading the charge in the U.S. House of Representatives was Tom Graves, a Republican from Ranger, Ga., near Calhoun, who represents northwest Georgia, including Dade, Walker, Catoosa and Whitfield counties.

Graves introduced legislation to defund Obamacare. But support for Graves' bill was "absolutely meaningless," the FreedomWorks website said, unless representatives also signed a letter by first-term North Carolina Republican Mark Meadows that called for defunding Obamacare.

"Harry Reid and his Democrats will have no incentive to compromise unless they know the Republicans are willing to take a hard stance -- even allowing the government to be shut down, if necessary -- in order to stop the catastrophically unworkable and unaffordable health care law from taking effect," the website said.

Meadows' letter wound up getting 80 signatures from the 234 Republicans in the 435-member House -- including from three of the four Chattanooga-area representatives: Graves; Tennessee District 2 Rep. John James "Jimmy" Duncan Jr., of Knoxville; and Tennessee District 3 Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, of Chattanooga.

Local co-sponsors of Graves' bill included Tennessee District 4 Rep. Scott DesJarlais, of Jasper, and Fleischmann. DesJarlais did not, however, sign Meadows' letter.

Although Fleischmann both signed Meadows' letter and co-sponsored Graves' bill -- which the FreedomWorks website said could lead to a federal shutdown -- Fleischmann "is opposed to the shutdown," his spokesman Tyler Threadgill said.

Threadgill blames the Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration for being unwilling to negotiate.

"You can't govern if one side won't even talk to the other," he said.

Threadgill cited Fleischmann's support for House Republican-sponsored piecemeal bills that would restore funding to national parks, veterans' benefits and the National Institutes of Health.

'Power over the purse'

Meadows has shot to prominence since the impasse began. A CNN headline about him reads "Architect of the brink: Meet the man behind the government shutdown" while a New York Daily News headline says, "Tea Party-backed Rep. Mark Meadows put government on road to shutdown."

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Meadows' letter, dated Aug. 21, is addressed to House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

"We should continue our efforts to repeal Obamacare in its entirety this year, next year, and until we are successful," it reads, and then goes on to urge the two Republican leaders to oppose any bill that would fund Obamacare, including the continuing resolution, which is holding things up now.

Meadows, a former restaurant owner who holds political office for the first time, concludes by citing No. 58 of the Federalist Papers, a series of articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison backing the ratification of the United States Constitution.

"Power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon ... for obtaining a redress of every grievance," Meadows' letter states. "We look forward to collaborating to defund one of the largest grievances in our time."

Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University professor and expert on Congress, calls the shutdown "policy extortion" on the part of Republicans.

"[Obamacare] is the law of the land. It's not related to the question of the continuing resolution," Oppenheimer said.

"The administration has to be careful not to set a precedent by conceding anything," he said. "The same scenario could occur with a Republican president and the Democrats in control of one house of Congress. Suppose Democrats attached gun control legislation to a continuing resolution as their price for allowing it to pass?"

Corker: Shutdown a 'box canyon'

Compared to their counterparts in the House, the U.S. senators from Tennessee and Georgia were less enthusiastic about mirror legislation in the Senate: Sen. Ted Cruz' bill to defund Obamacare and a letter similar to Meadows' written by Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander all co-sponsored Cruz' bill, but none of them signed Lee's letter.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, of Chattanooga, didn't sign the bill or the letter -- and is an outspoken opponent of the shutdown.

"Bob Corker slams Ted Cruz on Obamacare" reads the headline of a Sept. 19 article on the website Politico that goes on to quote Corker calling the defunding tactic as a "box canyon," or trap, "that will fail and weaken our position."

In a speech last week on the Senate floor, Corker accused Cruz and Lee of supporting the shutdown because they wanted to be seen on TV.

"I'm understanding the reason we're waiting is that y'all have sent out releases and emails and you want everybody to be able to watch," Corker said.

Other leading Republicans have taken aim at the shutdown, including Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and author of the "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," an anti-tax promise that at one point was signed by 95 percent of all Republicans in Congress.

Speaking Tuesday to the Washington Post, Norquist said:

"[Ted Cruz] pushed House Republicans into traffic and wandered away."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or 423-757-6651.