Dissent but Not Rebellion in the GOP

Posted May 13, 2011 at 6:02pm

A diverse bloc of defectors has emerged in the House GOP majority — and it’s not those who rode into office on the tea party wave last fall.

The real rabble-rousers in the Republican Conference are mostly moderates and seasoned lawmakers, not the freshmen who many predicted would be a problem caucus.

Those who have voted against their party at least 20 percent of the time include Tuesday Group members, those hailing from the Northeast and several appropriators, according to vote rankings by Congressional Quarterly as of April 15. Rep. Dave Reichert leads the pack, voting against the party position a quarter of the time.

“What a rebel,” the Washington state Republican deadpanned when asked about his record.

A four-term Member, Reichert has never won re-election with more than 53 percent and he hails from a Seattle suburban district that President Barack Obama carried with 57 percent in 2008. Reichert has always boasted a moderate voting record, but he only emerged as his party’s top defector this year. The former King County sheriff suggested the Conference’s shift to the right might explain his new status.

“I think there are certain factions within the Conference that certainly have presented themselves more toward the right end of the spectrum,” he said. “You can tell that by comments being made at our Conference meetings.”

Earlier this year, Reichert said, “there was a little more pressure applied to try to get me to maybe change my mind” on votes, but leadership has largely let him vote his own way. Several other lawmakers interviewed agreed, noting that Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) has so far made good on his promise to let Members vote their conscience.

Rep. Peter King, who rebelled against his party earlier this year on a proposal to “retrieve” $178 million in funds paid to the United Nations, said Boehner’s even-handed style has made a difference in his own voting record, even though the New York Republican has voted against his party 13 percent of the time. The veteran lawmaker has served under three Republican Speakers, including former Reps. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (Ga.).

“To me, everything is personal. For me, I had a pretty hard time voting against Hastert because he’s a nice guy, and Boehner’s a nice guy,” King said.

“But for me,” he said with a grin, “voting against Gingrich was fun.”

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel noted that his boss “has made it clear that he wants the House to work its will, and for every Member to have the opportunity to participate fully as legislators in as open a process as possible.”

Leaders have held listening sessions and tutorials for Members as a way to keep an open process and buy goodwill among the rank and file. Aides note the tactic has helped during contentious debates, although it’s currently being tested as leaders struggle to unify the party behind any position on the debt limit.

King’s votes against the party position were mostly on amendments to the Republicans’ yearlong continuing resolution that sought $61 billion in cuts. Boehner allowed an open debate process on the floor that led to votes on nearly 100 amendments. King did join his party to vote for final passage and later for the CR that eventually became law after heated negotiations between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

“I don’t think on any key vote I’ve been off,” King said. “But if I have to be, I will be.”

Rep. Michael Grimm, another New York Republican, is just one of a dozen freshmen to make the list of top defectors in the GOP Conference. The outspoken lawmaker, however, is part of Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) whip team and in an interview said, “I’m certainly not doing it just to be a thorn in the side of leadership.”

Rep. Greg Walden, a close Boehner ally, was quick to debunk the “perception that it’s the freshmen against the leadership.” Instead, the Oregon Republican noted that conservatives have required the most courting this year.

Asked if that was a surprise, Walden said, “Nope, and here’s why: This is the biggest majority we’ve had in a very, very long time, so that brings with it a diversity of philosophy.”

Just six of the party’s top 40 defectors voted against the long-term CR that passed in March and drew the ire of many conservatives, prompting 54 of them to vote against the measure. Republicans had to rely on significant Democratic turnout for that contentious floor vote, and some suggest a similar situation will arise when the House considers a debt limit increase. Republican Study Committee members have called for sweeping cuts that would likely be watered down in negotiations with Senate Democrats and the White House, and while details are far from settled, Boehner could end up calling on Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for assistance.

The Democrats’ top vote counter acknowledged the challenge Boehner and GOP leaders have in the debt limit debate and in managing a diverse caucus that includes 87 freshmen. The one-time Majority Leader said, “In the majority, the consequences of not getting to 218 are much greater than the consequences of not getting 193.”

“In the majority, you have to govern, you have to take responsibility,” Hoyer said. “And hopefully our Republican colleagues will agree to do that, and especially on the debt limit.”

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) agreed. Even though the Tuesday Group leader has voted against his party 13 percent of the time this year, he said sticking together on the key votes will amount to more leverage, particularly when it comes to the debt limit. 

“This is not rocket science,” Dent said. “If the goal is to get spending restraint and spending cuts, the more of our folks who defect on these consequential votes simply emboldens Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.”

Editor’s Note: The online version of this article has been corrected to show that Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) has voted against his party 13 percent of the time.