On Wednesday afternoon, New York congressman Peter King leaned back at his Cannon building office, surrounded by dozens of police and fire badges and ball caps, pictures of himself with George W. Bush at the White House and with Bill Clinton drinking beer at a Super Bowl XXXI party. A Fightin’ Irish welcome mat lay at his feet and a caricature of him as a boxer hung above his head.
King, wearing a red tie spotted with bald eagle heads and a Twin Towers pin on his lapel, had just finished another television interview excoriating his fellow House Republicans as anti-urban bigots and untrustworthy leaders who did not deserve financial contributions from wealthy New Yorkers.
“There are times I don’t feel comfortable” among my Republican colleagues, King said in his disarmingly gruff, blue-collar New York accent. “Not so much on particular policies, as with the tone and the attitude.”
The Long Island lawmaker is something of an authority when it comes to tone and attitude. He has made his career as a tough-talking, brawling defender of his (increasingly Democratic) constituents, more than willing to pick a fight with his own party.
But even by King’s standards, 2013 is already a banner year.
On Tuesday evening, at the height of the “fiscal cliff” drama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) unexpectedly canceled a vote that would have sent $60 billion to New York and New Jersey for Hurricane Sandy relief. The decision shocked King, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and virtually every elected official on either side of the Hudson.
King immediately name-checked Boehner (and not in a good way) in a speech on the floor. His show of fury intensified when he later appeared on Fox News. “I’m saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to congressional Republicans is out of their minds,” he said. “Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace.”
Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) took notice and scheduled an afternoon meeting with King on Wednesday. That didn’t stop him. Shortly after noon, he arrived in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building for several TV hits. To a local New York station, he criticized the Republican leaders for breaking what he said were promises to help those devastated by Hurricane Sandy. “They very seldom say it to your face, they say it behind your back,” he said. He added: “We have to use tough hardball tactics. New York knows how to do it” and “I’m not taking anyone on their word anymore.”
He moved a few feet to his left, between a different set of marble columns, and said similar things to a national network. “The speaker is the one who pulled it,” he said. New Yorkers who would contribute to Republican members of Congress were “crazy — they’re out of their minds.”
As he stepped the exit, a TV reporter said she was simultaneously listening to a recorded interview with King as she watched him in person. “It’s magic,” she said.
King climbed into his spokesman’s sport-utility vehicle, complete with child safety seat, and expressed amazement that Republicans treated Christie, “the blue collar face of the party,” like garbage. (At 1 a.m. Wednesday, after leadership pulled the relief measure, King said Christie called him and “was crazy” and “made me sound like a Sunday school teacher.”)
As security waved the car onto the Capitol grounds, he described many of his fellow Republicans as “people who have not been involved in politics before, not been involved with really the give and the take of what goes on in the world.” Donors had already told him they’d stop making contributions to GOP House members, he said. “They take it as being played for fools.”
The SUV pulled into the garage, and King took the elevator up to his third-floor office. A “Never Forget” poster of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, New York skyline hung on the wall. As his aides received more calls for interviews, including from the Weather Channel, King did a remote interview with ABC’s evening network news show. The cameraman packed up his equipment, although King wasn’t done talking. He described the Republican Party as “absolutist” and “isolationist” and overly worried about what “Grover Norquist is going to say” and —
“Oh, there you go. Look at this guy,” he said, interrupting himself and pointing at the television, where a clip of him talking was playing on Fox News Channel.
Megyn Kelly, the Fox News anchor, reported that the Sandy relief bill included earmarks for Alaskan fisheries, Amtrak and Smithsonian repairs. King shook his head, saying it wasn’t true, and accused his party’s preferred network of trying to justify Boehner’s decision. “They’re peddling it,” King said. “They have to say something.”
An hour later, King walked out of his office and crossed the street to the Capitol, talking about how Al D’Amato, the retired senator and a fellow Long Island brawler, planned to come to the House to picket with a busload of angry and homeless people displaced by Sandy. He entered the building and rounded a corner toward Boehner’s office, where scores of photographers and reporters awaited. “Oh, wow,” he said. “Everybody.”
Boehner arrived late to the meeting, ashtray in one hand and cigarette smoldering in the other. He turned to King and with a smile called him an unprintable name, according to King. King said that the profanity actually broke the ice and that Boehner, taking his seat at the head of a rectangular table next to Cantor, spoke of how he understood how much pressure the delegations were under and how strongly they felt, and that they would get their $60 billion. His only request, King said, was to tone down the rhetoric.
The meeting lasted only a few minutes. When the scrum of reporters raced back over to ask King how things went, his tone and attitude were markedly different.
“What’s done is done,” he said. “I take him at his word.” Now that he and his bridge-and-tunnel allies had gotten what they wanted — a new and presumably firm promise for help — the anger subsided. When asked if the lawmakers had discussed King’s call for New York donors to stop funding Republicans, he said, with a grin: “We don’t discuss contributions in a government building.”