Freshmen showdowns with GOP leaders

April 22, 2012

In 1790 the first Congress, assembled in New York’s Federal Hall, was consumed with the young nation’s $54.1 million debt accumulated in the Revolutionary War. Rep. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, who helped craft the First Amendment a year earlier, spent months helping craft a debt deal that both created the capital city of Washington and a new Treasury to assume the state debts.

It was the high-water mark of his career. By 1796, disgusted with “these days of faction,” he announced his retirement with a blunt assessment of Congress: “Do not ask what good we do.”

That declaration forms the title of a new book by author Robert Draper, who spent 2011 practically embedded with a half dozen of the members of the tea-party-infused House GOP freshman class, a group that started 87 strong and added two members through special elections last year. The book tracks the freshmen and their incredible clout, becoming a force that prompted veteran lawmakers such as House Speaker John A. Boehner to bend to their will.

In the process a new “days of faction” emerged as Congress and President Obama became paralyzed amid partisan gridlock, sending congressional approval ratings to all-time lows. Here are a few moments the book uncovered to demonstrate the impact that the freshmen have, so far, had on the 112th Congress:

— On Dec. 30, 2010, Allen West took off from his home in Plantation, Fla., in a U-Haul and drove to Washington. A former Army lieutenant colonel — discharged after a controversial interrogation of an Iraqi insurgent — West spent four days before his swearing-in wandering the halls and basement corridors of the Capitol complex trying to learn every inch of his new command post. His first big public action was to send a letter to House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) telling him the new floor schedule was soft: “We start off being in session only 10 days the entire month of January?”

— Summing up the attitude of many freshmen, Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.), a former auctioneer, reportedly told lobbyists early last year that party elders such as Boehner and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a former House leader, should not be trusted. “John Boehner and Roy Blunt are what’s wrong with Washington,” he said. Bret Funk, Long’s spokesman, said Sunday: “Rep. Long denies this incident ever took place and has nothing but the utmost respect for both Speaker Boehner and Senator Blunt.”

— After the freshmen rebelled against a spending bill, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) met with senior members of the Appropriations Committee in early February 2011 to inform them they had to rewrite the bill to appease the freshmen. The lawmakers asked McCarthy if he had done a formal “whip check,” a vote count, but he simply declared, “It won’t pass.” The appropriators angrily rewrote the bill, a process they repeated again last September after many freshmen opposed another spending bill. The senior lawmakers pleaded with McCarthy and Boehner to punish the recalcitrants. “It’ll just make martyrs out of them,” Boehner declared, saying only positive encouragement could work.

— By the summer many freshmen urged the strongest possible action on the debt ceiling showdown, demanding the inclusion of a constitutional amendment requiring a strict balanced budget in exchange for allowing the Treasury to borrow trillions of dollars more to fund the government. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), a freshman who Boehner sometimes called “Hardhead” because he so regularly opposed leadership, helped lead some conservatives to watch the Democratic-run Senate’s vote to reject the balanced budget amendment. First, he arranged a meeting in the Capitol Rotunda with his conservative hero, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who counseled the House members on Senate decorum for House members. Then DeMint told them to deliver a message: “You’ve gotta tell Boehner to cut the bulls---. When we go over to the White House like children ...”

— The freshmen opposition to lifting the debt ceiling prompted four of Boehner’s closest friends to warn him that his dealings with Obama could lead to a revolt that would replace him with his No. 2, Cantor. The four lawmakers first met with Boehner’s chief of staff, Barry Jackson, who also feared the motives of Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the budget chief. “That’s what Cantor and Ryan want. They see a world where it’s Mitch McConnell [as Senate majority leader], Speaker Cantor, a Republican president and then Paul Ryan can do whatever he wants to do,” Jackson told the four Boehner allies. (On Saturday, Boehner’s office said Jackson’s remarks referred to initial differences in strategy during the first round of debt negotiations and noted that the speaker and majority leader worked closely together during the second round that led to a final deal. Cantor’s office declined to comment.)

— In the fall a clear fault line split the freshmen into camps of those who supported Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy, and those who reflexively opposed leadership. Reps. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), a former nurse who has become a leadership favorite, and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) got into a fight at a GOP meeting after Labrador ridiculed the leadership’s new plan to promote legislation that had died in the Senate. “You’re going against whatever leadership does,” Ellmers said dismissively to her fellow freshman.

“And you’re just going to support everything they do!” Labrador shouted back, summing up the divide.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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