They are not part of the elected House Republican leadership team, nor are most of them committee chairmen. Rather, they are his crew, his buddies, colleagues who have his back.
Like most congressional leaders, Speaker John Boehner turns to an inner circle for counsel in rough times like these — and they may not be the people you think.
Reps. Tom Latham of Iowa, Pat Tiberi of Ohio, and Mike Simpson of Idaho — House veterans, but not household names — are on the list. Notably absent are Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California, both of whom are allies but also represent rival power centers in the famously fractious chamber.
If the Dean Martinesque Boehner, stylish with his pressed suits, occasional cigarette, and perpetual tan, were to have a Rat Pack of his own, this roster of about 20 or so lawmakers would be it. Sometimes, they are vehicles the speaker uses to publicly float his ideas, defend his decisions, or shoot down challenges. Other times, they simply give advice. “Moral support, mostly,” Latham says.
“They provide a little bit of everything, including telling Boehner things he might not want to hear — but needs to,” offers former Rep. Steve LaTourette, a centrist Republican, fellow Ohioan, and, until his retirement after the last Congress, part of this group.
While there is nothing official, the group does have regular lunches about once a month, according to Latham, who was reluctant to even acknowledge its existence.
Many of these Boehner allies helped him mount his successful insurgent campaign for House majority leader against then-acting leader Roy Blunt of Missouri back in 2006. Some of them were part of his unofficial whip operation in that leadership race.
But there remains no official membership list. And if there was one, says LaTourette, there would be layers to it.
For instance, he named Tiberi, Simpson, Latham, and Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina, both former representatives. Boehner also counts on Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, his appointed National Republican Campaign Committee chairman, and Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, the previous NRCC chairman and now Rules Committee chairman, to advise him about the political scene. And there is Boehner’s “Ohio Mafia,” including Reps. Steve Stivers and Bob Latta.
Beyond these members, LaTourette, lawmakers, and aides also list Reps. Charles Boustany of Louisiana; Doc Hastings of Washington; Frank Lucas of Oklahoma; Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey; and Michael McCaul and Sam Johnson of Texas. There are also newer members, such as Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas.
How does this group help Boehner?
Some have been extremely vocal in the current debate over funding the government and avoiding a government shutdown.
Simpson, for example, spoke candidly in September when a House leadership plan to force the Senate to take a vote on defunding the Affordable Care Act was rejected by conservatives in favor of a bill that would actually defund Obamacare.
“I thought leadership put together a really good plan,” Simpson kept telling reporters.
On one such occasion, he got more forceful. “I think there’s a number of people who don’t remember when the government was shut down last time [in 1996] and who carried the burden of that. That was Republicans.”
Of the hard-liners, Simpson said, “I’m not saying they want to shut the government down. They want to defund Obamacare. But if [that is] the inevitable result of the position you’re taking and the hard stance you’re taking on something — yeah, you’re responsible for it.”
Indeed, Boehner’s allies often try to help reporters better understand various nuances of what he is doing. That’s important, because there is no shortage of voices in the Republican conference eager to knock the speaker. Unlike Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s meetings with her caucus when she was speaker, Boehner often faces blatant disrespect.
“They also report back “˜intelligence’ — well, maybe that’s a strong word,” LaTourette said. “They tell him about the true and untrue rumors within the conference.”
One recent example was getting word back to the speaker that a movement was afoot, led by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to allow the use of some earmarks to help speed legislation along. Boehner found out early enough to snuff out the effort.
Some might think it odd that Cantor and McCarthy — and, for that matter, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate — are missing from the list
Not so, LaTourette says. He points to the long-standing turmoil between Boehner and Cantor that may have contributed to the leadership team’s inability to share the wheel. LaTourette acknowledges that the relationship between the two has improved more recently, saying “they seem to be more on the same page now.”
But when it comes to those Boehner turns to in times of trouble, LaTourette says, it’s not always the titled leadership of the GOP conference.
As he put it, “You need someone who’s got your back.”