In a matter of days, Ray LaHood will bring to a close two decades of elected and appointed service in Washington.

His successor as transportation secretary has been confirmed by the Senate. The walls in the secretary’s office have been stripped bare as he prepares to leave. But LaHood, a former Republican House member, is not going quietly.

“We will not win another presidential election as Republicans,” he said, “unless we do something to fix the broken immigration system.”

He was interviewed the morning after the Senate, on a bipartisan 68 to 32 vote, approved a comprehensive immigration bill. That measure now faces an uncertain future in the House, a reality that worries LaHood.

House Republicans, he said, should follow the lead of Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the tea party favorite who helped broker the bipartisan legislation in the Senate. “I’m sure he’s taken a lot of heat and grief for this. His colleagues in the House should take a page out of his book,” he said. Otherwise, “this is going to be the death knell for Republicans winning national elections for decades.”

LaHood’s barbs about his party are part of his broader out-the-door message. He is dismayed by the breakdown of bipartisanship in Washington and alarmed by the lack of civility and resistance to compromise that now colors political debate.

Longtime moderate

To anyone who has watched LaHood’s Washington career as chief of staff to then-House Republican leader Robert Michel (Ill.), then as Michel’s successor in the Peoria district through seven terms in the House and more recently as a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, his message is no surprise. He is a moderate Republican in a conservative party and a maverick politician who never shied from speaking his mind.

LaHood was formed politically in a different era, when rivals both fought and cooperated. He looks to Michel and former Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen (Ill.), who once held the same House seat. Willingness to compromise, he said, remains fundamental to solving the country’s problems, no matter how polarized politics have become.

The political climate was changing as he came to Washington, with greater partisanship even then. When I asked him to name the biggest difference between the conditions when he arrived in Washington and today, he was blunt.

“What I believe it is,” he said, “is a small group, maybe 30, 40 in the House, who have come here to do nothing — and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve done nothing. They’ve accomplished nothing. . . . They didn’t come here to vote for solutions. They came here to do nothing, and they stand in the way of the president and his agenda. But also I would say they stand in the way of getting a bipartisan immigration bill passed or a bipartisan farm bill passed.”

Many of those House Republicans would counter LaHood by saying that they came here to prevent the federal government from growing larger, spending more money and extending its regulatory reach into the lives and business of ordinary Americans. They would say they are doing exactly what they came to do.

“The idea of getting elected to Congress has always been about moving America forward, solving America’s problems, not about stymieing, not about stopping, not about ignoring,” LaHood responded. He added: “The idea of their philosophy doesn’t square with the traditions of Congress, the traditions of why people come here, the traditions of how we move America forward. These are people without a vision.”

Boehner’s dilemma

LaHood now sees the immigration bill as an enormous test of leadership for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Boehner is adopting a go-slow approach to the issue, to let the House work its will for a time. Ultimately he may have to decide whether to buck his party in the House to pass a bill that a number of Republican leaders view as crucial to the party’s future nationally. If he does that, he could be putting his speakership at risk.

“Look, this takes real courage,” LaHood said. “This takes the possibility of falling on [Boehner’s] sword for a greater good — for a greater good for the party, not for himself. He can continue to be speaker if he has to continue to curry the favor of the tea party faction. But if he really wants to be a speaker who goes out getting something done, improving the opportunities for the party nationally, then he has to muster up the courage to do it.”

LaHood worries because he believes House Republicans have turned inward. “They’re so insular,” he said. “Look at the leaders: Boehner, [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor, [Republican Whip Kevin] McCarthy. They’re all about the House, and I don’t know that they care that much about winning national elections. It doesn’t appear that they do.”

During a farewell appearance at the National Press Club on Thursday, LaHood described Obama as someone for whom “bipartisanship is in his DNA.” I asked him why, if that were the case, the president has often struggled unsuccessfully to work his will on Capitol Hill. He argued that Obama is as skillful at dealing with the opposition party as were former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But he said Republicans have “kind of turned a blind’s eye to him.”

How much of the problem is it that Obama lacks the muscle or the political wherewithal to make things happen on Capitol Hill, that he is no Lyndon Johnson when it comes to working with Congress?

“Well I’ve read the Johnson books” by Robert Caro, LaHood said, “and I am amazed at how effective Johnson was. Part of the effectiveness, though, was that he spent so many years in the Senate. I really compare Biden to Johnson in that regard. Joe Biden has so many friends in the Senate on both sides of the aisle because he was there for 35 years. That’s how you build the relationships. . . . Unfortunately, President Obama was only there for two years. . . . I think when the president wants to solve a problem, he sends Biden to the Senate.”

Politics of the past

LaHood may be longing for a style of politics long since out of date and no longer possible. He looks back fondly at the eras when Reagan worked productively with Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill or Johnson worked with Dirksen to pass civil rights.

So much has changed. The advent of super PACs with huge budgets, the influence of outside groups, the threat of party primary challenges, the greater independence of individual members and permanent campaign-style warfare in governing have dramatically changed the conditions under which politicians operate.

“That doesn’t mean that you can’t develop relationships, solve problems and do it in a bipartisan way,” LaHood insisted. “These things can still be done that way. I think the Senate just proved it on immigration.”

LaHood said that, despite all, he does not feel like a man without a party. He is not sure what his next chapter will bring, but as we closed he said this: “I’m not going to leave the Republican Party. I’m a Republican. I hope I can be a part of finding ways to getting back to the idea that our party can be relevant. We’re not relevant right now nationally.”

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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