I’d have to wait, I was told after arriving at Rep. Tim Huelskamp’s Capitol Hill office. The congressman was busy having a mold made of his ear. It was a sign that the outcast Republican, recently shunned by his party, felt he was ready for prime time.
It’s a big step for a guy who says that when he first came to Congress in 2011, Speaker of the House John Boehner said he hadn’t even heard of him. But now, Huelskamp has managed to piss off his leadership enough to get called out publicly.
“I don’t want to say that I’m John Boehner 20 years from now, but I’ll say, what goes around comes around."
When Republicans decided at the end of last year to bring up a vote to raise taxes on the richest Americans, it was one thing for Huelskamp to vote against the measure; it was another thing for him to make a YouTube video chastising anyone who would go along with the deal. It may have proved to be the last straw for the GOP leadership he had bucked numerous times during his first two years. Just days later, sitting in a hospital while his father recovered from surgery, Huelskamp got the call from Boehner’s close friend Rep. Tom Latham of Iowa informing him that he had been stripped of his committees.
That move has made him something of a martyr for the tea party and outside groups (such as the Club for Growth, a no-apologies PAC promoting fiscal conservatism), and has the House member poised to take on an even more vocal role in the 113th Congress. Even if his leadership doesn’t want to listen, they’re going to have to at least be ready to see him on TV more.
And with all these new TV appearances, Huelskamp would probably need his own personal earpiece. Hence the ear mold.
“I got selected out as one that must be having some influence, or else you wouldn’t be punishing a guy,” Huelskamp said after greeting me in cowboy boots and inviting me into his office—the walls decorated with photos of his four adopted children, all of whom are black, Hispanic, or Native American. Huelskamp talks mostly out of the right side of his mouth, his lip curling into a slight snarl. He thinks an outsider is exactly the representative his constituents want: He pointed out a quote from a person in his hometown paper saying, “If you’re getting punished, you must be doing something right.”
Today, Huelskamp once again acted out in defiance, voting against a debt-ceiling deal that had been sanctioned by his leadership and passed through the House with a vote count of 285-144. The deal calls for a raise in the debt ceiling. But here's the catch: The Senate needs to agree not to pay themselves until they pass a budget. Huelskamp says he can’t support a deal that gives Democrats what they want now, for an undefined budget later.
“The idea that you’d raise the debt ceiling with a gimmick like this, I cannot sell that at home,” he told me. “Even if I thought it was a good strategy, it would be really tough to explain.”
But Huelskamp doesn’t spend a lot of his time debating with people who oppose him ideologically. During my day with him on Tuesday he went from a meeting with his staff, to a semi-regular press event with like-minded House Republicans called “Conversations with Conservatives,” to a closed-door meeting with the far-right caucus known as the Republican Study Committee. Sitting on the subway between the Rayburn House Office Building and the basement of the Capitol, I asked Huelskamp what talking with like-minded politicians would actually do for his cause.
“You know, it’s only going to take 17 of us,” he said.
This, in a nutshell, is why Huelskamp may matter as Congress barrels down to various crisis points. With Republicans having lost seats in the House, 17 defectors could derail any bill planned to pass on just GOP support. So while Huelskamp may not exactly be what you’d call a player in Congress (after being stripped of his Budget and Agriculture committees, he now only serves on Veterans Affairs and Small Business), it would be a mistake to completely rule his kind out in this Congress. The fact is, although Huelskamp may speak with (and sometimes for) only a small group of Republicans, at this point, that may be all it takes to throw a wrench in the gears.
Already, 12 people decided not to vote for Boehner as speaker. Huelskamp, of course, was one of them.
“I think it was the least I could do to the speaker to return the favor,” he said with a satisfied chuckle. “We wanted to send a message that we are frustrated, all across the conference.”
Part of that frustration, he says, comes from the fact that the four top people in the House Republican leadership are from blue states (Boehner from Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor from Virginia, Whip Kevin McCarthy from California, and now Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Washington state).
“We don’t have a red-state person in leadership, so there’s obviously tension,” he said. And after his punishment, Huelskamp sees a possibility to take an unofficial role as a conservative leader. Instead of being silenced by the demotion, he says that the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and the 24-hour news cycle will give him even more opportunities to be heard.
“Some folks definitely say, ‘Gosh, if I’d like to have a career here in 10 years, I better stay away from a guy who challenged leadership,’” he said. “If they knew their history they’d know that John Boehner was [once] part of the purge group. He was purged as well. I don’t want to say that I’m John Boehner 20 years from now, but I’ll say, what goes around comes around.”
The question remains, of course, whether Huelskamp will really be able to effectively get his message out. On Tuesday, he got a minor lesson in the difficulties of communicating, even with the advent of new technology.
He cut out of the RSC meeting early for a planned Skype session with a group of high-school constituents responsible for the viral video protesting recent lunch restrictions. This video has racked up more than a million views, and some of the restrictions have since been pared back or delayed. Huelskamp wanted to congratulate them, but they never showed up for the Skype date. So much for getting heard.
“I guess they couldn’t get out of class,” Huelskamp said.
*Update: Huelskamp's office called to say that the Congressman was not stood up, that the Skype interview with the students was never confirmed.
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