published Saturday, September 28th, 2013

Georgia's Tom Graves helping to lead the high-risk effort to defund Obamacare

A House proposal to provide money to keep the federal government operating but defund Obamacare originated with U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, left. The result has been a rising national profile for the Georgia Republican. Here, Graves, left, stands with House Speaker John Boehner and others in Washington.
A House proposal to provide money to keep the federal government operating but defund Obamacare originated with U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, left. The result has been a rising national profile for the Georgia Republican. Here, Graves, left, stands with House Speaker John Boehner and others in Washington.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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It's no surprise to find U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., helping lead House GOP hard-liners' charge to take down President Barack Obama's health care law.

Bucking the political establishment is nothing new for the 43-year-old tea party favorite from Ranger, near Calhoun, Ga., who still bears scars from his time in Georgia's Republican-controlled state House.

But with a potential federal government shutdown looming Tuesday if Congress can't compromise on a temporary funding resolution, many question whether the tea party-backed charge will take the nation's economy and fellow Republicans over a cliff.

On Friday, the Democratic-led Senate voted 54-44 along partisan lines to strip language from the House temporary spending measure that would defund Obamacare.

The provision originated in the House with Graves.

Senate Republicans all voted against stripping the Obamacare defunding provision on Friday, including fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson.

But earlier this week, Isakson, speaking on a procedural issue, said while he opposes Obama's signature accomplishment as much as anyone, "I will not vote to shut government down."

In Tennessee, Republican Sen. Bob Corker said he too opposes Obamacare but derided the House GOP plan as "silly" given Democrats' control of the Senate and Obama's threatened veto of any defunding measure.

The temporary funding resolution now goes back to the GOP-led House. The chances of a weekend compromise are uncertain.

"We've provided a solution to keep the government open and heed the concerns of our constituents to protect them from the harmful effects" of the Affordable Care Act, Graves said in an interview Friday.

"There are many different options and a lot of different strategies and ideas out there," he said. "I think what you'll see is one that reaches good consensus in the House ... and gives the Senate another opportunity to do the right thing for their constituents."

That would be defunding Obamacare, which Senate Democrats refuse to do.

Graves dismissed questions about what happens should the House and Senate hold firm.

"That's a hypothetical that you only know when you get there, so we're going to do one step at a time," he said.

•••

Some say Graves exemplifies the tea party Republicans whose arrival has shaken up Washington.

Graves beat many of them to the U.S. Capitol by winning a special election in June 2010 to represent what is now Georgia's 14th Congressional District. The district borders the Tennessee line.

During his seven years in the Georgia Legislature, Graves developed a reputation for hard work and firm conservative positions.

Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University, said Graves proved a popular "firebrand."

But Graves sacrificed a promising state House leadership role by defying the speaker in a dispute over the political appointment of a regional transportation official.

The speaker bounced him out of a subcommittee chairmanship as well as a position where he was allowed to vote the speaker's wishes on any House committee.

In 2009, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, a fellow Republican, vetoed Graves' sweeping tax cut legislation, which Graves said was his response to Obama's stimulus package. Graves argued that it would put recession-ravaged Georgians back to work. Critics said it would blow a hole in the state budget before its effects could be felt.

Once in Congress, Graves was named to the powerful House Appropriations Committee and quickly found common ground with fellow hardliners. Those GOP rebels have been pressuring House Speaker John Boehner to stand with them in a high-risk ploy to defund Obamacare.

Until recently, most of the attention in Washington's political "mediaverse" has been dominated by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who staged a 21-hour talkathon on the Senate floor to protest funding of the Affordable Care Act.

But Graves, a former real estate developer, is getting his moments. He made his maiden appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. The Washington Post quotes him. Conservative groups laud him and the efforts to defund Obamacare.

"I think he's increasingly being looked at as a leader within the [House GOP] conference," said Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action. That's the Washington, D.C.-based political arm of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank pushing defunding.

He "understands the actual budget process, the appropriations process, as well as anybody," Needham said of Graves. "I think he's right in the middle of the fight."

But Graves' high-profile role is drawing heat from Obama supporters. Members of the liberal group Organizing for America protested outside his Dalton congressional office this week.

"You, as a representative of the people, have been elected to serve the people. And they are not pleased with you, Mr. Graves," charged Dan Lovingood, who joined other OFA members. "Your economic terrorism and hostage-taking is not going to work anymore."

Yet the defunding effort has its defenders.

Heritage Action's Needham defended the House GOP and other supporters of defunding the health law, saying "that'd be a shame" if it leads to a partial government shutdown. The House "fully funds" all the other operations of the federal government, just not Obamacare, he said.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais said in hi 4th Congressional District, "people appear to be resoundingly" in favor of pushing defunding.

"I think a lot of America does have the stomach for a government shutdown" if it comes to that, DesJarlais said.

•••

Georgia state Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, worked with Graves in the state Legislature and isn't surprised by his role in Washington today.

Dickson describes Graves as "a good guy" and "very focused."

"He was all business. He was a hard worker. He studied the bills and he was involved. He was the kind of legislator that when he voted on a bill you knew he formed an opinion based on that" and not just from what lobbyists or others were telling him.

Dickson said Graves is a lawmaker who's "going to stand on his principles."

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, called Graves a "very ideological" state legislator who demonstrated "he was quite willing to buck the leadership."

"He's also done that in Congress," Bullock said. "For those kind of folks, they're as willing to do battle with their own leadership as Democrats and as a result wind up tilting at windmills."

Graves has "huge support within his constituency," Bullock said, allowing him to "thumb his nose" at leaders. But, Bullock cautioned, "it makes it much harder to govern the United States when you have a lot of people like that."

David Wasserman, with the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based nonpartisan newsletter that monitors politics, called Graves "kind of the poster child for Republicans who've emerged in overwhelmingly safe seats since 2010."

"He won by being the most conservative guy around who still came across as a stable individual on the campaign trail," Wasserman said. "It's no surprise that he's drawn a very hard line on matters like the debt ceiling and has led the battle against leadership."

But he cited the mid-1990s, when the public blamed congressional Republicans after a partial shutdown prompted by a budget clash with Democratic President Bill Clinton.

If there's another shutdown, he said, Republicans "will likely garner most of the blame because the Republicans are holding a typically routine measure hostage to their own ideology."

Democrats are united while the GOP is "factionalized," Wasserman added. "When a party is factionalized, it typically doesn't end well."

In the meantime, much of the national business community has urged federal lawmakers to find a compromise on the temporary funding resolution as well as an upcoming vote to raise the federal debt limit.

Asked about the possibility of blowback on the Republican Party if a shutdown occurs, Graves said:

"I guess that's always the risk for anyone. But that shouldn't deter us from doing the right thing."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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