Undecided House Republicans render their leadership indecisive

July 29, 2011

The lobbying for Rep. Tim Walberg’s debt-ceiling vote began early Thursday morning. The third time it happened, it was only 7:20 a.m. and he was naked.

“Hey, Walberg!” a voice called out to the two-term Republican congressman from Michigan, who was in the shower at the House gym. “Are you with us?”

Walberg, 60, would not disclose the name of the other congressman, who wanted to know: “Have you come on over?”

Walberg gave the same answer he had already given twice that morning. “Still undecided,” he said uncomfortably. “But let’s do this at some other time.”

On Capitol Hill, Thursday was a tough day for the undecided — and for the Republican leaders trying desperately to persuade them.

The House was supposed to vote on a GOP bill to resolve the debt ceiling, which had become a test of the party’s ability to unite in a crisis. Bosses spent hours nagging, debating, pep-talking and outright badgering a small band of legislators who were still on the fence.

They couldn’t close the deal and, at the end of a very long day, both sides had learned bitter lessons: Political newcomers learned what an old-fashioned Washington squeeze play felt like. Party leaders learned that old-fashioned doesn’t quite work as it used to.

“I need your vote. I want your vote,” Walberg recalled House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) telling him at one point during the day. “Why can’t I have your vote?”

Boehner’s bill proposed to raise the debt ceiling in two steps and to require a bipartisan commission to find $1.8 trillion in new cuts from federal spending. At first, many conservatives thought it hadn’t gone far enough, and they held out for a constitutional amendment that would mandate a balanced budget.

But as the week went on, many “nos” had begun to turn to “yes.”

Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Tex.), a bespectacled obstetrician, sat alone at his office desk until 3 a.m. Thursday, then decided to back Boehner. Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), a former car dealer, mulled his decision over a glass of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. “Jack and I think about things now and then,” he said. He was a “yes.”

Thursday was closing day. GOP leaders wouldn’t say how many legislators they thought were up for grabs Thursday morning; Hill newspapers guessed there were several dozen.

Lobbying began in earnest at a 9 a.m. meeting of House Republicans.

“Working on it,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (Mich.). Huizenga, 42, a freshman and former state legislator, was fending off a question from the party’s whip, Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).

“Today’s the day,” McCarthy told him. Minutes later, a pair of other legislators from Michigan sidled up to Huizenga to check again. “So. We any closer?”

The meeting itself revealed how much Boehner and other GOP leaders had managed to achieve already. A few days ago, Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.), a car dealer and freshman legislator, had seemed dead-set against a compromise like this one.

Now, he was literally shouting for it. “Buckle your chin straps. Run out on the field. Let’s knock the [expletive] out of them!” Kelly, a former Notre Dame football player, told the group, a witness said.

Standing at the edge of the room, Rep. Harold “Trey” Gowdy (S.C.), a 46-year-old former prosecutor, was thinking of somebody who wasn’t there.

“I was thinking about a furniture salesman in Westminster, South Carolina, who — but for one vote — might be the governor of South Carolina,” Gowdy said. He meant former representative J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.), a friend who had supported his party’s leadership on another controversial vote, the one that approved the Troubled Assets Relief Program in 2008.

That vote had made the party happy, but it cost Barrett. Conservative voters turned on him, and he lost in a gubernatorial primary. Gowdy was leaning toward a “no” vote: Barrett’s example was a reason not to get rah-rahed into changing his mind.

“I was actually wondering whether or not [Barrett] sat through some of the same conversations like that one,” Gowdy said.

At noon, it still seemed that some legislators might indeed be lost causes.

Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.), a 57-year-old longtime politician, went to the House floor to denounce Boehner’s plan as inadequate. He carried a typewritten speech with him that said, “America deserves better.” Then he amended it in pen, to add “now!” Then he read it that way. “America deserves better — now!” he said.

Afterward, Brooks said he hadn’t been moved by appeals that the party needed a “yes” vote from him. He was leaning toward “no.”

“Everyone wants to be part of the team,” he said. “But at some point, you have to think about Team America.”

But as the afternoon lengthened, Republican leaders put on the full press. As members gathered on the House floor for a series of other votes, leaders cornered them one by one. Cantor approached Huizenga, the holdout from Michigan, and gave him the message again: “We need you.” A few hours later, Huizenga said he was a “yes.”

McCarthy walked over to Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the House budget chairman beloved by conservatives. McCarthy drew a circle in the air with his index finger. That meant circulate, and lobby.

Ryan and Cantor sought out Brooks, the Alabama firebrand who had just denounced Boehner’s plan on the floor a few hours before. Joined by another GOP leader, they took turns talking to him — making the case that Boehner’s bill was still better than risking a national default.

“I’m wrestling with trying to find which one is the least bad,” Brooks said after the leaders were done with him. “Not a fun thing to have to do.”

Late Thursday, GOP leaders were calling in the undecideds one by one, trying one more time to gain their votes. Two South Carolina legislators were so affected by the experience that they immediately went to the Capitol chapel to pray.

Night fell, and the votes still weren’t there. Party leaders brought in Gowdy, among more than a dozen other lawmakers, and they talked in a suite of rooms in the Capitol for more than three hours.

At the end of all that, Gowdy was still a “no.” Walberg was still undecided. Brooks could not be reached for comment. Close to 10:30 p.m., party leaders agreed to withdraw their bill and make unspecified changes, in the hopes of bringing in more votes.

“I said I couldn’t support the bill in its current form. And I picked those words for a reason,” Gowdy said afterward.

So, could he support a revised bill?

Gowdy said he was still undecided. “We’ll see tomorrow,” he said.

When the vote finally took place Friday evening, Gowdy voted no, one of 22 Republicans who lined up against the bill as it passed the House. Walberg was a yes.

Staff writers Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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