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Griffith Emerging As House Republican Bridge Builder

Colleagues say Virginia Republican is helping overcome divides within the GOP conference

Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith has drawn praise from his colleagues for his willingness to work toward solutions and compromise. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith has drawn praise from his colleagues for his willingness to work toward solutions and compromise. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In a political world where perfectionism can often earn you a bad reputation as an obstructionist, Rep. Morgan Griffith has managed to do the opposite.

Colleagues say the Virginia Republican, a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, has shown a willingness to compromise and work toward solutions on legislative and procedural problems. But they also describe the four-term lawmaker as a principled perfectionist whose attention to detail has been an asset, not a hindrance.

“Morgan is the type of leader who’s been able to be a voice of compromise between many different folks in the Republican Party,” said Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, a member of the moderate Tuesday Group. “When Morgan Griffith says something, he means it.”

Intraparty collaboration is critical to the success of the Republicans’ agenda, as Democrats do not agree with most of their major policy ideas.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden said Griffith, a member of his panel, is “arguably one of the most thoughtful legislators I’ve ever served with. He does his homework. He does his due diligence on every bill.”

Walden recalled Griffith voting against a suspension bill to facilitate a land exchange in his east Oregon district that was supposed to have occurred eight or nine years ago.

“He was one of two ‘no’ votes, and so I went over to him on the floor and asked, ‘What gives?’” Walden recalled.

Griffith told him that the bill referenced a memorandum of understanding and that he voted against it because he was unable to get a copy prior to the vote so he didn’t feel he had a full understanding of the legislation’s effect.

“And I said, ‘I wish I was half the legislator you are,’” Walden said. “He is that diligent. … That’s why he has so much respect by anyone who he’s worked with.”

The bill has since come up again and the Oregon Republican said he made sure to provide Griffith with a copy of the memorandum, which secured his support for the measure.

“He’s rock solid conservative, but he’ll work with you — as long as it doesn’t violate his strongly held principles — to get to yes,” Walden said.

‘I read every bill’

Walden’s story illustrates Griffith’s approach to legislating, which is driven by his background as a lawyer and Virginia state legislator, as well as his general love of reading and learning new information.

“I read every bill that I’m going to vote in favor of,” Griffith said during a recent interview in his southwest Virginia district. “If it’s clearly an anti-Second Amendment bill, I don’t need to read it, I’m voting ‘no.’”

Upholding the Second Amendment, Griffith said, is a core principle on which he’s unwilling to compromise. Other lawmakers also have matters of principle on which they will not budge, and Griffith said he respects those differing views when trying to work toward solutions.

“Sometimes, you can’t bring somebody to a yes, or I can’t get to yes because one of those principles is not in sync with the bill,” he said. “But absent that, if you can gain some ground, you should do so.”

One area in which Griffith helped Republicans gain some ground was the health care debate. While Griffith was one of the few Freedom Caucus members to come out as an early “yes” on the GOP health care bill, he never stopped working to find improvements that could win over more of his colleagues.

Griffith was one of just five Energy and Commerce members involved in a crucial meeting three days before the eventual health care vote on May 4, in which they brainstormed how to sway remaining holdouts. Specifically, they were looking to address concerns that insurance premiums would rise dramatically for people with pre-existing conditions and without continuous coverage in states that opted to waive out of certain insurance regulations.

In that session, Griffith proposed having the federal government buy down the cost of insurance for those individuals with pre-existing conditions so that they would not have to pay more than 130 percent of what insurance companies could charge if the state had not opted out of the regulations.

While Griffith’s idea remained on the table for roughly 24 hours, it was ultimately another idea floated during that meeting with Walden and senior Energy and Commerce members Fred Upton of Michigan, and Texas’ Michael C. Burgess and Joe L. Barton that became the final amendment to the bill.

Griffith said he didn’t mind that his idea was ultimately rejected, noting that it would have lost a handful of conservative votes that were needed for final passage. “The bottom line was it’s about getting something done,” he said.

Off the sidelines

Walden declined to discuss details of that private meeting, but confirmed that he brought Griffith into the fold because of his respect within the Freedom Caucus and his willingness to engage in problem solving.

“Every step of the way, he was one who was trying to come up with solutions as we would encounter these different issues,” he said. “Some work, some don’t. But he’s not one on the sidelines.”

The health care debate was not the first time GOP leaders have looked to Griffith for help. When Speaker Paul D. Ryan created an organizational task force to examine potential changes to GOP conference rules and the structure of the Republican Steering Committee that is in charge of committee assignments — one of his promises upon being elected speaker — Griffith was one of the members tapped to participate in the group.

“I kept putting in changes and talking about it and going to all the meetings,” Griffith said, when asked how he got involved in that effort.

Davis, who served with Griffith on that task force, said the Virginia lawmaker was helpful in achieving the group’s goal of instituting conference rules that would gear more of the decision-making power toward the membership, not leadership. He described Griffith as a “quiet, unassuming guy but very much engaged in the minutia of governing.”

While they represent very different districts, Davis said Griffith is always willing to listen to him explain his constituents’ needs and perspectives.

“In the end, we agree much more than we disagree,” Davis said. “It’s about finding the right balance and that’s what Morgan is so good at.”

That also happens to be Griffith’s favorite part of his job. Or at least that’s what he told students he visited at Glade Spring Middle School in his district on May 10, the week after the health care vote.

“It really is trying to figure out ways to craft a bill that can pass,” he said. “If you don’t pass anything, you get nothing.”

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