WASHINGTON — As the federal budget showdowns have ground along, Sen. Mike Johanns has found himself a lightly scolding voice against the hard-line strategies favored by some of his fellow Republicans.
When Senate Republicans returned from Friday’s meeting at the White House, the Nebraskan reiterated to reporters his point that the tactic of refusing to fund the government unless the health care law was rolled back was never, ever, ever going to work — not in a million years.
The Cook Political Report’s Jennifer Duffy, who watches the Senate closely, said plenty of his GOP colleagues are probably thinking “amen” when they hear Johanns say that, but they aren’t going to publicly agree with him because they’re worried about potential primary challengers. Johanns has opted not to seek re-election to a second term in 2014.
“There are a lot of Republicans who are glad that there’s somebody there who can say it — and it doesn’t have to be them,” Duffy said.
During Johanns’ time in the Senate, a number of his GOP colleagues have fallen to primary challengers after being criticized for a reluctance to embrace a no-holds-barred approach to governing.
Robert Bennett of Utah and Dick Lugar of Indiana both took flak for even talking to Democrats and were defeated by primary opponents.
Johanns, of course, has been reliably conservative on most areas of policy substance. But he’s also a pragmatist.
“He’s not going to fall on his sword for the unrealistic,” Duffy said. “I don’t think he’s ever done that. So now he simply has the freedom to call it what it is.”
Johanns said last week how much he believes in making the case that the new health care law is bad for the country, but that the votes are simply not there to get rid of it until Republicans get more reinforcements.
“That doesn’t mean I’m giving up the fight, but this is a battle that’s going to go on over a period of time, and we just can’t give up on it. But we also have to pick the right strategies or you’re just fooling people, and that’s not right either.
“I know people sometimes are irritated by my honesty, but I just want to be honest again,” he said. “This tactic could not possibly lead to the result that was being promised.”
Johanns went on to criticize the notion of shutting down the government in any effort to force sweeping policy changes. He spoke of what would happen if Republicans were in control of the White House and both sides of Capitol Hill, but Democrats threatened to shut down the government unless taxes were raised on every American earning more than $200,000.
“We would never put up with that,” Johanns said. “We would be screaming and hollering.”
His position has put him at odds with Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who signed a letter over the summer saying they would not support measures to fund the government if money for the health care law were included.
Fischer last week defended standing firm on eliminating the health care law, saying she hears every day from Nebraskans whose health insurance costs are rising.
Fischer acknowledged that she and Johanns disagree on strategy. “We have different viewpoints,” Fischer said. “I went down one road because it truly was the first and only time I’ve seen a strategy put forward here in Washington since I have been here.”
Johanns downplayed a reporter’s suggestion that Republicans face a dilemma over the hard-line tactics favored by the Tea Party.
He said Republicans have always included a range of political viewpoints. The problem in this case was that the idea of shutting down the government got thrown out there, promoted by television pundits and then seized on by many.
Thousands called and urged lawmakers to stand firm. And at the end of the day, they got what they wanted: a partial shutdown.
Now those people don’t understand as they watch the health care law roll along, unaffected, he said.
“They feel duped,” Johanns said.