House GOP Leader Cantor: Shutdown Is ‘Off The Table’; House GOP Leader Price: Shutdown Is ‘On The Table’

For a party that places a premium on message discipline, the Republican ranks are beginning to fray on the issue of a possible government shutdown.

Over the past few months, over a half-dozen Republicans have stepped out to publicly support a potential shutdown. Some GOP veterans are calling to shut down the federal government, including Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) and Steve King (R-IA). But it’s the freshmen in Congress, including Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Reps. Alan Nunnelee (R-MS), Tim Walberg (R-MI), Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), and Steve Womack (R-AR), who are chomping at the bit for a government closure.

Now, with Congress gearing up for a major budget showdown that could result in a shutdown if a funding agreement is not reached by March 4, the GOP is struggling to settle on its strategy. Many Tea Party congressmen and other conservative ideologues won’t be satisfied with anything less than draconian spending cuts. Rep. Gohmert summed up their position: “If it takes a shutdown of government to stop the runaway spending, we owe that to our children and our grandchildren.” However, cooler heads on the right remember the 1995 shutdown and recognize a government closure will cause great harm to the nation.

The congressman whose job it is to corral these divergent views in the Republican caucus is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). When pressed, an “exasperated” Cantor finally sided with Republican realists, telling Fox News yesterday that “we ought to get [a government shutdown] off the table.”

However, Cantor’s proclamation hasn’t persuaded his entire caucus. During last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, ThinkProgress spoke with House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA), the number five in GOP congressional leadership. We asked Price about whether the GOP would be willing to shut down the federal government over the budget fight, particularly defunding health care reform. Despite Cantor’s insistence that a shutdown was “off the table,” Price told us that “everything ought to be on the table”:

KEYES: And if [defunding health care reform] comes to a head, do you think shutdown should be off the table?

PRICE: Everything ought to be on the table. But I don’t think the president is going to go there. I don’t think he wants to shut down the government based on this law.

Watch it:

Linda Bilmes, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who led a seminar for dozens of freshmen members of Congress, argued that freshmen GOPers are eager to shut down the government in order to prove their conservative mettle. Indeed, they are already flexing their muscles against the GOP leadership in a number of areas, including the size of proposed budget cuts and defeating an extension of the PATRIOT Act.

Now, as the budget fight draws closer to a head, Republican infighting is likely to continue, even among the GOP leadership.