By Caren Bohan and Fred Barbash
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eager to exploit divisions among Republicans, Democrats have hammered the message that the U.S. government shutdown is the work of a small segment of House of Representatives Republicans on the far right.
In fact, support for the tactic that led to the shutdown - now in its fourth day - has proven to be far more solid and widespread among House Republicans than the Democratic portrayal.
That is because the far right, after the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections, is not a small segment at all - it represents probably 69 percent of the House Republican caucus.
Members who were endorsed by Tea Party organizations in the 2012 election make up a full third of the Republican caucus of 232 representatives.
Even more, about 160 members, a strong majority of the caucus, get high ratings from the ultra-conservative Club For Growth.
The long-established and well-financed small-government advocacy group has been in the forefront of the movement that urged the House to tie continued funding of the government to a demand for the defunding President Barack Obama's healthcare law. It has also sought to pressure representatives who threaten to abandon the hard line.
Democrats have consistently said that Obamacare is non-negotiable and House Speaker John Boehner opposed the hardline in his own party, fearing a shutdown. But Boehner was not just outnumbered by his caucus in the House; he was overwhelmed.
DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
"The dirty little secret here is: Nothing these radical Tea Party conservatives are proposing is not part of the Republican Party platform," said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth.
While there has been talk of revolts from moderate Republicans, no more than 12 to 14 members have been willing to publicly dissent from the party's approach.
One of those moderates, Peter King of New York, said House Republicans have relented in part because a majority of party lawmakers "think they are winning" the fight. King and others have been trying to lead a revolt but it has received little support.
The broad Republican support for a hardline strategy may be even more consequential as the October 17 deadline to raise the government debt ceiling approaches. Many Tea Party Republicans are loath to vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it is tied to a requirement to balance the budget with no tax increase - something Democrats oppose.
If a large number of Republicans back that demand, it would be impossible for Boehner to lift the debt ceiling without relying on Democrats for the lion's share of votes - a step that could undercut his leadership even more.
One Republican who showed no sign of abandoning the party's stance was Representative Trey Radel, a freshman House member from Florida.
Radel, a former television and radio talk show host, ran for his seat in 2012 on a platform of fiscal conservatism and toning down the vitriol in American politics.
He disagreed with the notion that the House Republicans were a "massive divided conference." He said that idea is belied by the fact that the Republican votes demanding changes to Obamacare as a condition of funding the government have been almost all unanimous or nearly unanimous.
"How in the heck can anyone shift the focus - or in their words the blame - on this quote-unquote Tea Party," Radel told Reuters in an interview. "This is the Republican Party ... We are all unified on this."
Even some of the more outspoken Republican opponents of the strategy on Obamacare were resigned to allowing it to play out.
"I think we're in for a prolonged situation," Republican Representative Devin Nunes of California told Reuters.
Nunes earlier this week referred to Republicans who had embraced brinkmanship over Obamacare as "lemmings with suicide vests."
But he said he did not think there was much of a chance of a broad rebellion against the "lemming caucus."
"I think there's a few folks that have talked about it," Nunes said. "But I don't think it's possible."
None of this surprises experts on the makeup of Congress after the 2010 and 2012 elections.
While much was made of losses among conservatives in key U.S. Senate races and the loss of half a dozen House seats by Republicans in 2012, the composition of the Republican caucus moved even further to the right than it was after the 2010 election, according to a study by political scientists Keith Poole of the University of California at San Diego and Howard Rosenthal of Princeton.
"As a whole the Republican conference is pretty conservative," said John Pitney, professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
"Within the Republican conference, the debate is over strategy and tactics, not ideology. Republicans are pretty unified in their opposition to Obamacare."
While there is a more militant contingent composed of one or two dozen members, said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress at the Brookings Institution think tank, the overwhelming majority of Republicans, not just those associated with the Tea Party, hail from solidly conservative districts where the boundaries have been carefully drawn to include a high number of Republican voters.
In those districts and among those voters, opposition to Obamacare is not divisive; it is unifying.
It is true that Boehner counseled against the tactic now being used by his caucus in the House and was pushed into it by conservative members.
If there is anything in the House that is a small minority, it is not the conservative Republicans, but rather the group of members who regularly support Boehner.
An analysis of voting patterns in the House by Binder published in the "Monkey Cage," a prominent political science blog, concluded that less than 15 percent of Boehner's colleagues "stuck with him through thick and thin this year."
Boehner's "go-to crowd represents a very small portion of the conference," she wrote.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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