WASHIINGTON "Obama will feel pain," Michael Needham predicted.
Needham looked as though he were angry enough to administer the pain himself. The 31-year-old chief executive of the conservative group Heritage Action gripped his coffee cup tightly with both hands as he spoke to reporters over breakfast Wednesday. When he reached for his water glass, there was a slight tremor in his hand.
But the ones feeling the pain from Needham right now are Republicans. His group, funded by the Koch brothers and anonymous donors, is the one that joined Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to rally opposition to Obamacare this summer. Together, Cruz and Heritage Action deserve much of the credit for forcing the government shutdown and Heritage is threatening to use its considerable war chest against Republicans who waver in the effort to abolish the nation's health care law.
This is a heady experience for the fast-talking New York native who graduated from Williams College and Stanford business school. And Needham is rather enjoying the shutdown he helped bring about.
"If we want to sit in a government shutdown for the next several weeks over the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) being shut down, I'm perfectly happy to sit in that situation," he said at the breakfast, arranged by the Christian Science Monitor, "until President Obama stops this unaffordable and unfair law."
He must be happy, because he's resisting any reasonable effort to end the shutdown. He dismissed as a "laughably bad idea" a compromise that would reopen the government in exchange for a repeal of a medical device tax. He belittled as "insufficient" House Republicans' offer to keep the government running if the individual mandate were delayed. Asked about a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that didn't mention Obamacare, Needham told the 2012 vice presidential nominee to get back on message: "The attention of Republicans and conservatives needs to be back on Obamacare and not other ways out of this situation."
Needham was cocky and brazen, and yet Republicans have to take him seriously. GOP lawmakers live in fear of primary challenges from tea-party candidates, so they must obey those who influence tea-party activists. Needham's group has influence and a lot of cash.
The Heritage Foundation tapped Needham, a Heritage staffer, to create Heritage Action three years ago, a few months after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision made such 501(c)(4) organizations a new way for the wealthy to influence politics. Needham's operation fits well with recent moves by Heritage's new president, former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to politicize the old think tank, and it rivals another 501(c)(4), the Club for Growth, in its capacity to terrify Republican officeholders.
Right now, Needham is ordering these lawmakers not to end the shutdown: "We should not pass a full funding of the government unless and until Obamacare is addressed." Others see peril for Republicans in the strategy, but Needham called it a "path to electoral success" that is treating Republicans "fairly well." Others condemn the use of a shutdown to repeal laws, but Needham said "the process is being used now just as the process should be used in the future." He called Obama "gargantuanly constitutionally arrogant" for refusing to abandon his signature achievement. He ridiculed as "fear-mongering" the idea that the government will go into default if the debt ceiling isn't raised.
At the moment, Needham is fighting alongside Republicans. But Heritage Action's broader goal is to turn the GOP into a "libertarian populist" party freed from Wall Street and K Street. Slate's John Dickerson asked whether Needham was trying to force a confrontation to induce a "massive crackup of the old order" in the GOP.
"I'm pretty optimistic that it's going to happen and it's going to happen pretty soon," Needham said.
Perhaps. But Needham won't say who's contributing to his populist movement or how much, other than the $500,000 from the Kochs. "The laws in this country are such that 501(c)(4)s don't disclose their donors," he told the reporters. "If you have a problem with that, you should change the laws."
That's true. In the topsy-turvy world of Republican politics, a 31-year-old staffer can lead a shutdown of the federal government using secret funding.
A questioner asked whether Needham would support the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner if he ends the shutdown without destroying Obamacare.
"I don't have a vote in who's speaker," Needham said.
That was a rare moment of modesty. His may be the only vote that matters.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.