Capitol Hill power player Fred Upton switches ideological gears as his clout grows

October 31, 2011

Washington doesn’t want Fred Upton anymore. Not the Old Fred Upton, at least.

A divided capital — and a restive GOP — is insisting that the affable, dutiful Michigander can no longer be who he has long been: the ultimate moderate. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, this acolyte of centrist traditions is being urged to stop recognizing that the other side has a good point or two, especially points that the Republican leadership has not embraced.

In a city nudging both parties toward absolutism, centrists who once communed and voted with Upton — Republican Mike Castle of Delaware, Democrat Bart Stupak of Michigan — have been pushed out by redrawn district boundaries, strident activists and public impatience. Anyone known for getting along was told to git along.

For his quarter-century in office, Upton has embodied balance: He is a friend to House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), he implores manufacturing chief executives and endangered-species advocates to just call him Fred. He is trustworthy and fair, and perhaps because of this, he was chosen for the secretive “supercommittee” trying to find an elixir for the country’s debt problems. And yet, from the outside anyway, the committee shows more signs of sparring than swaying toward agreement.

While other moderates have been ousted, the citizens of St. Joseph and Kalamazoo (and points in between) have sent this grandson of the founder of one of the region’s largest employers, Whirlpool Corp., back to Capitol Hill. And they have stuck with him because he did the strenuous across-the-aisle negotiations meant to keep air and waterways clean while keeping the factory lights on, that nudged the sick and elderly toward better health while coaxing the budget toward balance.

And yet, something’s different about Fred Upton. At 58, he has been exhibiting a restless energy that suggests he knows now is his party’s time to get aggressive, not conciliatory. Only as a fighting team can the Republicans capi­tal­ize on President Obama’s weaknesses; only by being disruptive can they capture disgruntled voters. Subtlety is out, zeal is in.

Upton and his best friend in Congress, Oregon Republican Greg Walden, say that the days of bipartisan harmony were actually darker than mythological history paints them.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Republicans felt as though they would never in their careers regain a majority. As Walden explained, “There was an attitude that you didn’t want to stir things up with the majority, because then you wouldn’t get anything.”

Now this ascending group of House Republicans appears to be clear on one thing: They have a chance to reject the sitting president’s agenda and possibly unseat him in a year’s time. And Upton, ever a competitor, is determinedly part of that mission.

That makes onetime Democratic allies wonder what became of their friend Fred, who once pushed for mandates that all light bulbs be more energy-efficient but who now upbraids the Environmental Protection Agency for protecting the environment.

In his job as Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Upton has ruled more forcefully than anyone expected. “I chose everybody’s spot on our side. I interviewed all of them,” he said of his subcommittee lieutenants. His handpicked freshman-class reformers got coveted seats on his committee, he said, and “we’re better for it.”

In fact, Upton keeps signaling to his collaborators in progressive politics that they should expect no declarations of independence from Fred Upton. “We’re going to have to work very closely with the leadership,” he said. “No surprises. And we’re going to work in sync.”

For environmental lobbyists who found Upton to be available, if not reliable, over the years, the chairman’s door appears closed. “The radicalization of Fred Upton is a perfect example of what’s wrong with our country,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, who had counted him among the most fearless in the GOP. “I had real hope for Fred Upton, and actually I still do.”

‘Old Fred’

On a recent morning (he often arrives at dawn), Upton ambled into the Rayburn House Office Building. Bowlegged, rosy-cheeked and mostly sunny, he offered greetings to security guards and assistance to a staffer who works in a neighboring office. He allows a long-serving aide to bring her two dogs to the office, where they cavort with his own Sammy — and he later tears up at the memory of another dog who had visited often but has since died. The chairman showed off his balcony overlooking the Botanical Garden, a stone ledge soon to be the site of charcoal grills and bonhomie among his committee’s friends and family. “We’re going to do ribs,” he said with a huge grin.

Upton had just written, respectfully, to a disgruntled woman in his district on the occasion of her 70th complaint to him. He tends personally to constituents, whether getting a veteran his long-denied Purple Heart or finding road funds for highways near Muhammad Ali’s farm. In his two dozen years in Congress, he has missed 33 out of 15,000 votes, and he can offer pained explanations for each absence, like a veteran pointing out battle scars.

But Upton’s love-thy-enemy alliances nearly cost him exactly what he was working toward. To lead the Energy and Commerce Committee, he had to vanquish Joe Barton, a more senior contender from Texas. One demerit was Upton’s partnership with John Dingell, the Democrat who commanded the panel for decades and defended Michigan’s mighty manufacturing sector. As a House GOP steering committee mulled the options, Upton called for backup all over town. “Fred Barnes is my neighbor,” he offered as one example of a D.C. pasha and right-wing commentator whose writing assured Beltway hard-liners that they could trust Upton.

And Dingell, who is helping Upton on a bipartisan pipeline bill, understands that with power comes partisanship, that no one with a gavel can be a goody-goody. “Fred does not have the freedom he would have had previous to his time as chairman,” Dingell explained. Upton still partners with Dingell on smaller issues such as tort reform and pipeline safety. He takes pains to host some make-nice events, like inviting to his Alexandria house Michigan’s 15 House members, two senators and even the governor — with every potluck dish prepared by an elected official or spouse. (“It was just like the old days,” recalled Debbie Dingell.) To usher in his Energy and Commerce reign, Upton treated Dingell and all the other previous chairs, and their wives, to dinner at Carmine’s in Penn Quarter.

Those are the vestiges of Old Fred, who could freely back cash-for-clunkers legislation with fellow Michiganders when the GOP message-shapers decried it as a mega-giveaway for the Motor City.

New Fred insistently plays down the outreach he gets from the White House, even when innocuous. One number that pops up on his phone belongs to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former GOP House member. “You know, your cellphone goes A to Z, and I’m the last person,” Upton jokingly explained as he tried to pass off the incoming call as a mistake. “When he put it into his holder, it scrolls. What do you call it? Butt-dial.”

The two go way back, know each other’s wives, brought their families to centrist retreats and learned much at the knee of Bob Michel, the storied embodiment of Capitol Hill’s bipartisan past, when all was bitter retorts by day and sweet vermouth by night. “This is not folklore. I experienced it,” LaHood said.

‘New Fred’

As political discourse has sharpened, Upton is keeping up with the times. In a subcommittee session last year, he grabbed the gavel from his friend Jay Inslee, a Washington state Democrat filling in as chair, and spun it around in his hand. He compared Obama’s proposal for cap-and-trade legislation to an early Clintonian enthusiasm for a BTU tax on energy. “You know what we called BTU?” Upton asked Inslee, who knew that the acronym stands for British thermal unit. “Big Time Unemployment.”

Inslee probably didn’t think it was funny. After voting for Clinton’s 1993 stimulus effort, Inslee was ousted, though he fought his way back and now represents a more urban district. “A year from now,” Upton said to his colleague, “you’re going to look back and say by not working with us, you just lost this gavel. Even though you had an 86-vote margin.”

Upton’s once-cozy dealings with the White House, which courted him in the earliest months of the Obama era, have turned bristly.

Recently, White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley phoned Upton to ask where things stand with the supercommittee. In recounting the chat, Upton boasted, “I didn’t spill the beans of what we’re doing, but he understands clearly the need to succeed.” In fact, Upton says he gave Daley a piece of his mind: “I gave him a little pushback on what the president said and how I reminded him that I was on my feet when he talked about the need to deal with entitlements.”

Daley’s version: “He did express — not pushed back — his opinion on the need for entitlement cuts, and we had a discussion on the need for revenue for a balanced package.” Upton, Daley said, was “rather guarded in talking about the details, which I knew from other conversations.”

Back in Michigan, a New Fred backlash has begun. Eco-activists in the district grumble that they’re “Fed Upton.” Former representative Howard Wolpe, a Kalamazoo Democrat who helped Upton defeat a conservative GOP incumbent in his first race, issued a scathing open letter to his old friend in the local papers.

“I have always known you to be honest, moderate, reasonable, and conscientious,” wrote Wolpe. “But I can not tell you how painfully disappointed I have been to see you morph into a right-wing extremist.”

Upton called Wolpe after the letter’s publication, but in an interview, Wolpe would not describe the conversation except to say that “it reemphasized for me my interpretation of what was happening.” Wolpe died of a heart condition a few days later.

Upton said he will be nicer to Democrats than they were to the GOP in recent years. “If you have an amendment that you think is worthwhile, go find a Democrat,” Upton said he told his fellow Republicans. Bipartisan ideas, he claims, now get top priority.

But that’s more for the small stuff; after all, plenty of the GOP leadership’s priorities have received early and swift consideration without Democrats on board. Already Upton has pushed through his committee a repeal of Obama’s health-care law, a favorite target of the GOP.

Recently, the House Democrats’ second-in-command, Hoyer, rang him. (Upton noted Hoyer’s excellence in playing hearts: “Oh, man, it’s great to stick him with the queen!”) But this conversation was centered on the supercommittee. “I can’t really talk to you now because I’m in the middle of my fantasy football pick and our computers are down,” Upton told him.

Still, he heard Hoyer out: The dealmaking should go big, closer to $4 trillion, putting everything on the table, and with a final vote of 8 to 4 or higher, instead of a mere eked-out agreement.

“I have no idea how Fred is going to vote,” Hoyer said in an interview. “He is not an ideological hard-liner. He’s principled. He’s honest. But I think he can play a very constructive role.”

The supercommittee is a time-suck and an energy drain. Upton says strangers in airports have offered prayers.

“As I’m home literally every week, people just know that we’re in this rut,” Upton says, with tears brimming. And yet, almost in the same breath, he boasts that he promoted some freshman to his panel, that he pushed the president to jettison some tough ozone-reduction plans.

Upton also just passed a bill to ease emissions rules for cement manufacturers, and he noted that Democrats are starting to abandon the White House on such measures.

At a September joint session of Congress, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson caught sight of Upton. “She was smiling till she saw me,” he recalled with relish. Minutes later, Obama himself was walking the aisle and took a second to lock eyes with Upton. “Good luck to you, Fred,” the president said.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics