Mark Sanford had one rule at a town hall meeting Saturday night in North Charleston: “Let’s kick around ideas, not each other.”
After all, times are tense between the right and the left, and the relationship is strained between America’s leaders and those they represent. There is no end in sight for a government shutdown now grinding into its second week. As ominous as things are in Washington, D.C., the comeback kid congressman was comfortable and at ease before his constituents in North Charleston this weekend.
Dressed in a light blue button-up and khakis and flashing his characteristic grin, Sanford breezed into a packed North Charleston City Council chambers for an impromptu Q&A.
“I don’t know how exactly to do this,” he laughed to a crowd of about 150 as he took the floor. The town hall meeting had been slapped together in about 24 hours. He had no wireless microphone and wasn’t sure how best to take questions. For roughly an hour and a half, Sanford heard from constituents including military veterans, people without healthcare, the disabled, a well-known historian, Occupy Charleston members, and a woman who called herself “the biggest Republican you’ll ever meet.” It was a mostly friendly audience, but some held signs protesting federal Common Core education standards next to others that supported the Affordable Care Act.
Sanford told the crowd that tensions are high right now because of what’s been going on in Washington and the effect it’s having on peoples’ lives. Locals here have felt the impact more because of Charleston’s large federal workforce, he said.
The federal government partially ground to a halt at midnight, Oct. 1, when a bill to fund its operations died. The result: national parks and monuments have closed, 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed, and the United States appears increasingly unstable in the eyes of the international community. The standoff came as Republicans in the House tried to tie a funding bill to a dismantling of the Affordable Care Act. Senate Democrats and Obama didn’t agree to it, and Republicans refused to take a vote on any bill that didn’t include Obamacare changes. Democrats have called for Congress to pass a “clean CR,” a continuing resolution bill that would fund the government without including conservative demands for scaling back Obamacare. Republican House Speaker John Boehner says the votes aren’t there, but that’s disputed. Until the two sides can agree, the government will remain in a partial shutdown.
Sanford said a storm has been brewing for awhile.
“You had the end of the financial year coming up at the end of September, matched by the beginning of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act the next day, and a lot of consternation about that, and so – boom! – the fire went off,” he said. He predicts the fight could last until at least December.
Sanford is spreading the blame around, but he’s certainly played his part. He’s co-sponsored resolutions to defund and delay the healthcare law. And while his name does not appear among the 80 members of Congress who signed an August letter by N.C. GOP Rep. Mark Meadows to House Speaker John Boehner endorsing the idea of tying the government funding bill to an effort to gut Obamacare, that’s only because Sanford missed the deadline to sign it, an aide says.
At the town hall meeting, Sanford told the crowd, “There has been an absence of leadership on both sides of the aisle,” and accused Republicans and Democrats of overplaying their hands, twice referring to the battle in Washington as a “food fight.”
Those comments might have raised eyebrows for some in Charleston who picked up a recent copy of the local daily newspaper. He penned an Oct. 1 editorial for the Post & Courier. Its headline (which he says he didn’t write): “Why the federal government shut down is warranted.” In it, Sanford took issue with the way Obama delayed a mandate for businesses to provide health insurance, while individuals will have to pay a fine in 2014 if they don’t get coverage. He also argued that the steps Republicans took were necessary. “When Harry Reid and the president have both said that they will not negotiate, defeat in the long run is near certain for the House, but (the) idea of using every tool to advance the voice of the majority of those who sent you is, to me, a fairly American and democratic concept,” he wrote.
Fairly quickly at the town hall, multiple constituents made it known they wanted Congress to end the shutdown by passing a bill that funds the government.
“I got the message, two clean CRs,” Sanford said the second time someone brought it up. But he said he’s struggling with that. He doesn’t think a temporary fix is the best option.
“Let’s say we pass a clean CR tonight,” he said, adding such a bill would fund the government through the middle of December or November. “So then what do we do? We will be exactly where we are right now if we do not resolve this spending issue that again separates the House and Senate that’s caused this time bomb to go off.”
Asked at one point why a failure to pass a budget extension based on Obamacare has shut down the government, when Obamacare has nothing to with the budget extension, Sanford said Republicans are trying to force Democrats to have a conversation.
From a seat near the back, author and historian Jack Bass asked Sanford why some Republicans, who have already held 40 unsuccessful votes to repeal Obamacare, were willing to let the government shut down over a law Congress passed and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld.
“How does that make any sense?” Bass asked to scattered applause.
In response, Sanford mentioned a recent column by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer, who argued that a “settled law” argument is hard to stomach since the White House changed it multiple times since it passed, especially delaying the employer mandate for a year.
After Sanford spoke, Reginald Williams, a 51-year-old man who works for a Charleston area debt-collection company and voted for Sanford’s Democratic opponent in his last election, approached him and said he wanted the congressman to pass a clean CR. “We don’t need to make people suffer financially because there’s a disagreement on one piece of legislation,” Williams said. He said he was sure Sanford heard his message – one several others shared – but wondered if it would change the congressman’s mind.
The shut down is now in its second week and no immediate compromise appears in order. Politically, Sanford acknowledged that’s it’s become increasingly toxic for Republicans, and he insists no one on his side wanted it to happen.
“Who would be for a shutdown?” he said. “I don’t think at the onset anybody that I talked to, period, even the flame-thrower types, were hoping for a shutdown. It just doesn’t accrue to Republicans’ benefit, period. They’re going to be seen as obstructionist, and they’re going to be blamed, and the polling bears that out.”