By Nathaniel Axtell
Despite being portrayed by CNN as an "architect" of the federal government shutdown, Congressman Mark Meadows said Thursday he fought up to the final hours to prevent it from occurring and worked hard over the last 16 days to stave off its impact on his district.
In a phone interview Thursday as he drove home from Washington, Meadows said he spent 30 minutes with an Obama administration aide at the Capitol the night before the Oct. 1 shutdown "trying to work things out, seeing if there are some areas we could make tweaks to Obamacare and avoid a shutdown."
Meadows said he "got a lot of raised eyebrows from people in my party, because they knew who he was." The White House congressional liaison "expressed a willingness to work together, but honestly, for political reasons, there was going to be a shutdown regardless," Meadows said.
Along with fellow N.C. Reps. Walter Jones, Virginia Foxx and Richard Hudson, Meadows voted no on Wednesday evening to a measure that reopened the federal government and extended the nation's debt ceiling.
"My concern was two-fold," Meadows said, explaining his vote. "One, we should've funded the government for a year. To have to go back through this in 90 days is not what any of us want to do. And we should've gotten rid of the congressional subsidy."
Under the Affordable Care Act, members of Congress and their staffs can no longer get their health insurance through the Federal Health Benefits Program beginning in 2014. Instead, they'll have to get insurance through ACA health exchanges, Meadows said.
"But unlike the average American, who doesn't get a subsidy if they're making the money we're making, we're getting a special subsidy to match the old federal program," he said. "So we're essentially getting a special subsidy that you, if you go on the program, don't get. That's not fair."
Meadows also objected to special provisions attached to the bill ending the partial government shutdown. Though it was "supposedly a clean bill," he pointed out language allowing the government to spend $2.9 billion upgrading a 1920s-era lock and dam project on the Ohio River.
In late September, Meadows made national headlines after CNN reporter Leigh Ann Caldwell wrote a profile of him that called him "one of the most prominent developers of the plan that could shut the government down."
Meadows said Caldwell "took great liberties, took words out of context and cut off parts of quotes to tell her story. It was unfortunate."
Even before that, the freshman Republican had quickly made a name for himself, grilling administration officials about their handling of the Benghazi terrorist attacks as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. President Obama also named him to represent Congress in the 68th session of the U.N.'s General Assembly.
But it was a letter circulated by Meadows urging House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor to "defund the implementation and enforcement of (Obamacare) in any relevant appropriations bill ... including any continuing appropriations bill" that garnered him the brightest national spotlight.
The letter, signed by 80 House colleagues, has been credited for spurring the GOP's hard-line stance that brought the federal government to close national parks and other "non-essential" services. Meadows insisted Thursday that was never his intention, adding his role has been "greatly exaggerated" by the some media sources.
"The truth of the matter is we all have consequences of taking a leadership role," he said. "Some could say if I had never drafted the letter, that wouldn't have been the case. It is what it is. And time will hopefully show that even in the midst of a very difficult thing with the shutdown, my No. 1 priority was to listen to the people back home."
At the start of the budget impasse, Meadows said, calls and emails to his congressional offices were "tracking about 60/40 in terms of being in favor of what we were doing. Toward the end, it was more evenly divided." He took many of the phone calls himself, even when they were from citizens who disagreed with his stance on Obamacare.
"I do care, and there are times when my heart knows that I'm fighting for the long-term benefit of our country," he said. "But at the same time, it's not about politics, it's about people -- even the people I don't agree with."
Following the shutdown, Meadows said he and his staff "were scrambling to make sure (with) the government agencies that get federal funds, we didn't have people in our district getting hurt."
Meadows said he intervened on behalf of a Pisgah Inn concessionaire who was forced to shut down his hotel, restaurant and retail stores on the Blue Ridge Parkway. He also encouraged Gov. Pat McCrory to ante up $75,000 to help reopen the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Wednesday.
House Republicans, he pointed out, floated several appropriations bills that would have reopened parks, allowed new veteran benefits to be processed, and restored funding for social programs such as Head Start and WIC, a nutritional supplement program for women and children.
"And they never got voted on by the Senate," he said.
The results of the shutdown "obviously, are not something that any of us can applaud or feel good about," Meadows said. But he remains committed to altering the Affordable Care Act, which he strongly believes places undue burdens on American workers and the economy.
"If there's an apology that needs to be made, it's that I should've been more persuasive," Meadows said, telling the story of "hard-working American taxpayers" who are being saddled with rising insurance premiums and job-stifling bureaucracy.
Having failed to force a defunding of the Affordable Care Act, Meadows said there are four areas of the law he hopes the Obama administration will agree to alter, including the law's definition of part-time workers and eliminating an independent payment advisory board tasked with Medicare cost-cutting if spending exceeds targets in 2015.
"One of the big concerns most people have right now is with wanting to make sure that decisions are between a doctor and them and not some government agency or bureaucrat," Meadows said. "There seems to be a little bit of an open window there to address that."
He admits Republicans have lost some leverage after the government shutdown. But Meadows pointed out there are legislative goals Obama "wants to get through the House that won't cause a shutdown," including immigration reform, that need the support of Republicans to move.
"Honestly, I'm having to take the president at his word," Meadows said. "He said after this shutdown was over and the debt ceiling raised, he'd be willing to negotiate."