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Architect of the brink: Meet the man behind the government shutdown

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Tue October 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A little-known, freshman congressman is flexing his legislative muscle in Congress
  • Mark Meadows insisted on strategy of defunding of Obamacare as a condition of new spending
  • Local tea party organizer says Meadows "is becoming our poster boy"

Washington (CNN) -- One of the most prominent developers of the plan that could shut the government down is a little-known congressman who has been in office only eight months.

This newly elected tea party aligned lawmaker downplays his position, saying he has relatively little influence. But in reality, his efforts have pushed Washington to the brink.

At issue is the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Some Republicans are demanding that it be dismantled -- or at the very least delayed - and they think the best way to do that is attach it to a must-pass bill to fund the government.

The idea has rankled Washington for more than a week and exposed fissures in the Republican Party.

So who is the lawmaker quietly influencing the debate?

Sen. Ted Cruz, who staged a 21-hour talk-a-thon on the Senate floor disparaging Obamacare, would be a good guess. But it would be wrong.

The persuasive

The answer? Mark Meadows, who represents the western part of North Carolina and has wielded his influence behind the bright lights of the television cameras and the hot microphones.

In August, while lawmakers spent time in their districts, Meadows wrote a letter to his Republican leaders suggesting they tie the dismantling of Obamacare to the bill that funds the government for the next year.

The man behind the government shutdown
A goverrnment shutdown looks like this
The game is the same, but many of the players have changed. Congress and the president are facing off in another supreme spending showdown. This last happened in 2011, when Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a spending measure shortly after the midnight deadline hit. Who controls what happens this time? Take a look at the key players who will determine how this fight ends.
-- From CNN Capitol Hill Reporter Lisa Desjardins. CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report. The game is the same, but many of the players have changed. Congress and the president are facing off in another supreme spending showdown. This last happened in 2011, when Congress avoided a shutdown by passing a spending measure shortly after the midnight deadline hit. Who controls what happens this time? Take a look at the key players who will determine how this fight ends. -- From CNN Capitol Hill Reporter Lisa Desjardins. CNN's Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
Key players in the shutdown debate
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Photos: Key players in the shutdown debate Photos: Key players in the shutdown debate

The letter read: "James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that 'the power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon... for obtaining a redress of every grievance...'"

Meadows successfully convinced 79 of his colleagues to sign on to his letter. And he went further, leading a group of 40 lawmakers to demand that the continuing resolution, or the short-term government funding bill at issue, zeroes out funding for President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy achievement so far.

Republican divisions force delay in Boehner's debt strategy

In a lengthy interview with CNN, Meadows explained his case.

"Our intent has never been to shut down the government," Meadows said. "It's to stop the [health care] law."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called those advocating for such a plan "anarchists."

A "bad day for government is a good day for the tea party," Reid said on the Senate floor last week.

Meadows vs. the GOP

Republican leaders in the House were reluctant and dismissed the plan -- at first. Speaker John Boehner and many Republicans believed the strategy could lead to shutdown as the Democratic-led Senate would never agree to such a plan.

Additionally, leaders believed that Republicans would be blamed for a shut down. Polling backs up their concern. A recent CNN/ORC International Poll indicated that 51% of respondents would blame Republicans. That's a political risk that leadership didn't want to risk.

Even though Meadows' letter doesn't represent a majority of the caucus, it was a factor in persuading Boehner to reverse course and put forward a plan that funds the government but defunds Obamacare.

Running against politics

Meadows said he understands that "leadership has a different responsibility." And that leadership is responsible for thinking about the party. "This type of vote could potentially hurt our long term goals. I understand that," he said.

But he said that's not his concern.

"My job first is to make sure I represent the people back home," Meadows said. "I don't believe that when I get here that people expect me to look at the political implications. That's for somebody else to focus on."

For him, getting rid of Obamacare is priority No. 1. "[T]o ignore that would be to ignore our duty to represent the people back home," he said.

'Persona non grata'

"For me it's about representing the 749,000 people I was elected to represent," Meadows told CNN in his small Capitol Hill office. He said his constituents want him to fight against Obamacare "regardless of consequences."

Meadows represents a conservative constituency. He was elected in 2012 and succeeded Democrat Heath Shuler, who decided not to run for reelection after the latest round of redistricting made the district swing heavily Republican.

Meadows won by 15 percentage points. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won the district with 61% of the vote, an impressive outcome in a state he won by 1 point.

Exclusive: Romney disagrees with House GOP 'tactics' on Obamacare

But there's more to the story. Meadows works very closely with the tea party groups and he is a conduit to their agenda.

In fact, his catapult from local businessman to elected official was launched with the help of local tea party groups. He underwent a vigorous interview process with the North Carolina-aligned tea party groups that included an intense vetting and interviewing process.

Jane Bilello, head of the Asheville, North Carolina, tea party group and its separate political action committee, said it is to ensure candidates "truly represents who we are and what we want them to do."

Bilello is pleased with Meadows' job performance so far. She said Meadows is "turning out to be our poster boy."

On the issue of Obamacare, "he truly represents us," Bilello said.

Well-funded national tea party-aligned organizations, such Freedom Works, are also watching closely.

Like Bilello's organization, they hold lawmakers accountable. Not only do they keep scorecards of how lawmakers vote on legislation, they are keeping track of what letters they sign on to and their role in every step of the legislative process.

Republican leaders are well aware of the influence of these organizations.

Republican Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska, who was elected in 1998 and finds himself between the new generation of tea party-aligned groups and the more traditional Republican leadership, said the tea party groups "impacts everybody."

Billelo said that Meadows hosts conference calls with the groups' members to explain what's happening in Congress, including the challenges that he faces promoting their agenda.

She said he told them he's "persona non grata" around the halls of Congress. Bilello said she and her members remind him: "They don't elect you. We do." They also offer assurance: "We have your back. We will support you," Bilello said she tells him.

Meadows relayed a similar sentiment. "There's nobody in Washington, D.C., who ever voted for me and there's no one in Washington, D.C., who will ever vote for me," Meadows said. "So it's about representing the people back home."

The non-leadership leader

"I think everybody wants me to pick a fight with leadership," Meadows said. But he contended that he isn't about playing the rebel, but finding results.

Are his tactics working? Meadows said yes.

"The Senate for the first time is having to vote ... on Obamacare," Meadows said. "That's why we had to do this."

The House has now voted 42 times on either defunding or repealing all or parts of Obamacare.

Many Republicans in the Senate thought the idea was a lost cause, including Texas Republican John Cornyn, who said Friday that the strategy "won't work."

The Senate eliminated the health care portion of the bill on Friday before sending a revised spending plan back to the House for consideration over the weekend. A shutdown would occur Tuesday, if there is no spending plan in place.

But Meadows successfully convinced a reluctant Boehner to go along with his plan. And then after it became clear the Senate wasn't going to play ball, the speaker hoped to move past the fight and pass a funding bill that would be able to pass the Senate, meaning it wouldn't defund health care.

But Boehner's Republican caucus, once again with Meadows in the forefront, rejected that plan.

Boehner's now working on a plan that will appease members such as Meadows.

What do shutdown and debt limit have to do with Obamacare?

Meanwhile, Meadows vowed to hold his ground.

"If there is a real plan to make sure we can accomplish it through some other means, I'm willing to look at that," he said. But he said it must involve "at least delaying" the implementation of Obamacare.

If it doesn't, he is willing to buck his leadership and oppose any bill he doesn't think goes far enough.

He admits some will have to take "some tough votes" to take. But for him he's right where his constituents want him to be.

"It's a safe place for me to be," Meadows said.

Polarizing Washington

Meadows rejected the idea that he is adding to the gridlock in Washington. He said Washington politicians have lost their way, but it's not because of their inability to compromise.

"Pragmatism has been at the cost of principle and principle has been at the cost of pragmatism," he said.

Still, Meadows asserted that he is willing to compromise with the Democrats.

"My ultimate success will be viewed by whether there is something we can accomplish," he said.

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