WASHINGTON — Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a hard-core leader of House conservatives who helped force a government shutdown in a fight over the scope of federal health care spending, sent out a statement on Wednesday bragging that the House had voted to “fully fund the National Institutes of Health.”
On Thursday, Representative Todd Rokita of Indiana, who swept to power on the Tea Party wave of 2010, stepped up to a microphone in the basement of the Capitol to recount his son’s struggles with a severe disability.
“Families, faith communities, associations and neighbors can take care of us better than government programs can,” he said. “But government should be there to help.”
“Science,” he added, “is a gift.”
Much of the federal government shut down Tuesday because of a clash between Congressional Republicans and President Obama in which Republicans sought to tie further government financing to delaying or crippling the president’s health care law. Beneath the mechanics lay deeper philosophical disagreements about spending, taxation, and the size and scope of government.
But the week’s events have blurred the divide. Republican leaders have offered mixed messages on the cause of the shutdown, and the House floor has played host to a parade of bills to restore government functions piece by piece, accompanied by rhetorical flourishes from ardent conservatives extolling the role of government in civic life and the selflessness of civil servants.
Representative Dennis Ross, Republican of Florida, elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010, said the party risked losing a fight over the scale of government while waging a quixotic war against the health care law. Though much of the government is shut down, he said, the Affordable Care Act, financed by its own appropriations, is moving forward unimpeded.
“Republicans have to realize how many significant gains we’ve made over the last three years, and we have, not only in cutting spending but in really turning the tide on other things,” he said. “We can’t lose all that when there’s no connection now between the shutdown and the funding of Obamacare.”
“I think now it’s a lot about pride,” he said.
In one breath on Friday, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said the fiscal impasse was about bringing “fairness to the American people under Obamacare” and about doing “something about our spending problem.”
And the central principle of Tea Party conservatism, an aggressive attack on government programs, has given way, among a growing number of Republicans, to a full-throated defense of federal functions as varied as national parks and nutrition programs for the impoverished.
On Friday evening, House Republicans voted unanimously to authorize $6.5 billion in new spending on the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children.
And in a rare weekend session, the House voted 407 to 0 on Saturday for a bill to guarantee that federal workers — once denigrated by conservatives as overpaid and underworked — will receive back pay once the government reopens.
At a hearing in 2011, Mr. Ross, the chairman of the House subcommittee on the federal work force, United States Postal Service and labor policy, charged that “federal employees on average earned $101,628 in total compensation in 2010, nearly four times more than the average private-sector worker.”
On Saturday, those workers were suddenly selfless civil servants: nurses and doctors saving lives, emergency workers braving natural disasters and NASA scientists exploring the frontiers of space.
“This has been an Orwellian week in which white is black and black is white,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia.
The budget deficit, in fact, has been one of the lowest priorities. Republicans first pressed to eliminate the health care law, a move that would actually have swelled the debt over time. (The Affordable Care Act’s tax increases and spending cuts, mainly to Medicare, put it in the black.) When that failed, they scaled back their ambitions to eliminating a tax on medical devices that helps pay for the law, which would add $30 billion in red ink but do nothing to stop the law and what many conservatives see as government overreach.
After defending such actions by saying they were taking aim at a major new government program, House Republicans set about reassembling the government they had shut down, piece by piece. Programs that conservatives had tolerated at best were suddenly lavished with praise: nutrition assistance for women and children, federal medical research, national parks, the Smithsonian Institution, even the government of the District of Columbia, which was authorized to spend money to pick up Washington’s trash, maintain its needle exchange program for intravenous drug users — and even implement the health care law.
“We have bigger items to fight over now than needle exchange programs in D.C.,” said Representative John C. Fleming, a Louisiana Republican who was once one of the fiercest advocates of taking a hard line on the shutdown. “I just think that is not as important as funding the N.I.H., funding the V.A., getting the government back open.”
Asked how he could choose between enrolling children in federal cancer trials or returning them to Head Start classrooms, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, said, “That’s coming as well.”
“We ought to be working as hard as we can to open the parts of the government we all agree on,” Mr. Cantor said — which turns out to be quite a lot of the government.
A Head Start vote will come in the next week, along with bills to finance border security and enforcement, nuclear weapons security and development, Indian education and health services, education assistance for districts with large federal installations, and the Food and Drug Administration.
Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress oppose these piecemeal bills, ostensibly because, they say, Republicans cannot pick and choose what programs to finance and what programs to starve, but also because reopening the most sensitive programs would relieve the political pressure on Republicans to reopen the government as a whole.
The House’s votes to restore financing to parts of the government followed efforts over two years to cut some of the very programs Republicans are now trying to rescue. The automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, which began in March and are now defended by most Republicans, cut $1.55 billion from the National Institutes of Health budget in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The spending bill for federal medical research in the 2014 fiscal year would have cut programs within the Labor and Health and Human Services Departments by 22 percent — cuts so deep that Republican leaders did not even try to get them approved by the full House.
The House appropriations bill for the National Park Service would cut $343 million, or 13 percent, from the budget requested by the president, and $240 million from last year’s level.
“It takes serious chutzpah for Republicans to portray themselves as the defenders of N.I.H., parks and other critical services they gutted through sequestration and proposed cutting further for 2014,” said Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
The House’s agriculture bill, which similarly did not get a vote in the full chamber, would have cut the president’s request for the women, infants and children nutrition program by $488 million, even more than the $333 million sliced by sequestration.
Friday’s debate over that financing bill brought Democrats practically to apoplexy.
“Are we meant to believe that today they have come to Jesus, or is this just politics?” Representative Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut sputtered on the House floor.
To moderate Republicans, the current debate might be a break from the relentless cutting that followed the Republican return to power in the House. Conservatives have been winning the argument on spending: the last fiscal year was the first time since 1996 that spending at the discretion of Congress fell in non-inflation-adjusted terms.
But the piece-by-piece examination of programs seems to be yielding a new appreciation for the federal government’s role.