It was a dramatic day in the middle of a dramatic week on Capitol Hill.
Republican Fifth District Representative Robert Hurt, who represents Charlottesville and Albemarle, was about to take the mic in the House to speak on day three of the Congressional shutdown standoff when security officers started barring the doors of the chamber, ordering a lockdown after a woman rammed a security gate at the White House and drove to the Capitol, where she was surrounded by police and shot dead.
“I’ve never been in a situation like that, certainly not since I was elected,” he said. When the chaos abated and the command to shelter in place was lifted around 3:30pm, Hurt gave us a call to explain the remarks that were cut short.
A little background: The showdown over House Republicans’ refusal to deliver a budget bill that doesn’t defund Obamacare has played out in an interesting fashion within the Virginia delegation. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of the 7th District helped trot out a piecemeal bill Tuesday that proposed refunding a few functions and agencies whose shuttering had generated some particularly bad headlines: Basic government functions for the District of Columbia, memorials, the National Parks System, and the National Institute of Health, which had been the subject of several stories about cancer clinics turning away sick kids. The bill passed, though it’s not expected survive a vote in the Senate, where it was blasted by Democrats as a face-saving measure by obstructionist GOPers who wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.
Republicans from Virginia, where an estimated one-quarter of the economy is driven by the federal government, are not united. Reps from NoVA and Virginia Beach, hit especially hard in the shutdown, are calling for a vote on a so-called “clean bill” to fund the government, stripped of any policy requirements that would surely kill it in the Senate.
But Hurt, who voted in favor of the partial funding measure Tuesday, said he couldn’t agree to such a vote.
“That’s Democrats saying, ‘Give in to all our demands,’” he said.
Hurt said his reasons for sticking with the shutdown have a lot to do with his objections to what he sees as a premature rolling out the Affordable Care Act. He brushed aside Democrats’ arguments that the days of wrangling over the ACA should be over now that it’s law.
“That’s a red herring,” he said. “There are a tremendous number of problems with the law, and we’re seeing that unfortunately every single day. If a bill isn’t ready to go into effect, then we shouldn’t be spending money on it until it is.”
He said he doesn’t feel that his two Virginia Republican colleagues’ departure from the party line puts any pressure on him to shift his vote.
“I feel as strongly as they do that we need to put an end to this,” said Hurt. “We need to fund the government. But that’s why we’ve offered to sit down. And Harry Reid has said he will not negotiate. That’s why we’re trying in good faith to fund portions of the government we can agree upon.
“How could you object to that, especially when they voted in favor of supporting the troops? They voted to fund the troops, but they won’t vote in favor of funding the NIH.”
The push to reopen the NIH may have been spurred by the stories of kids with cancer being refused treatment, but Hurt has other reasons to support it. The Institute funds a large portion of the biomedical sciences research at UVA, and this week marks one of its few major application and review windows for grants. That means a lot of labs are in limbo, waiting to submit or get final approval for funding that determines whether they can continue working or not.
“There are a lot of hardworking people affected by this, and I understand that,” said Hurt. “I feel like we’ve worked in good faith to get to the negotiating table, and I hope that will happen soon. It’s not fair to a lot of people.”
He rejected the characterization of the shutdown as Republican hostage-taking.
“Harry Reid actually said, ‘What right do they have to pick and choose what part of government should be funded?’ But that’s what we do,” he said. “He and the president can’t just tell us what to spend money on or shut the government down in the process. That’s not constitutional, and that’s not responsible.”
He hinted the gridlock could get far worse before it gets better. National attention is shifting from the budget battle to the October 16 debt ceiling deadline. The consequences of the U.S. defaulting on its debts would be drastic, but Hurt said the problems at the heart of the two fights are the same: The country has to regain control of spending, and representatives have a responsibility to use every opportunity they can to force the issue.
“We are borrowing 30 cents on every dollar we spend every day to keep this place open,” he said. “We have Social Security and Medicare, two extremely important programs, that are on the path to bankruptcy. We have to got to be serious and take every opportunity to bring spending reform and sustainability to those programs. And look, we have an opportunity to do it. I’m sorry, again, that we keep showing up to our side of the table and the Senate does not.”