Frelinghuysen Caught Between Gavel, District, and Trump

The Appropriations chairman has already annoyed GOP colleagues by opposing the health bill, and more breaks with his party are on the horizon.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen
AP Photo
April 5, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

Rep. Rod­ney Frel­inghuysen had yet to see a bill signed in­to law as the new chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee, but he was already apo­lo­giz­ing to his col­leagues.

The mea culpa, de­livered to a House Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers-only meet­ing in the Cap­it­ol last week, had noth­ing to do with the power of the purse, the main perk of the com­mit­tee that his more than 20 years in Con­gress fi­nally gave him the seni­or­ity to lead.

In­stead, Frel­inghuysen apo­lo­gized to his col­leagues for his pub­lic and ill-timed dis­missal of Re­pub­lic­ans’ health care re­write the week pri­or. That a top com­mit­tee chair­man would break with lead­er­ship on a crit­ic­al bill was bad enough, even if it was for­giv­able giv­en the unique health care needs in his home state of New Jer­sey.

What really per­turbed his col­leagues was that, without fore­warn­ing lead­er­ship, he is­sued a pub­lic state­ment the day of the vote call­ing the bill “un­ac­cept­able,” even though lead­ers be­lieved they could count on his vote—and after lead­ers asked mem­bers to keep neg­at­ive opin­ions about the bill private. The le­gis­la­tion may well have been doomed be­fore then, but the state­ment was seen as its death knell. More mod­er­ate mem­bers sub­sequently came out against it and it was pulled from the floor.

“There is some dis­gruntle­ment be­cause this was a tough miss for our Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity. It was an em­bar­rass­ing out­come to a sub­stan­tial is­sue that a lot of us talked about in our cam­paigns,” said Rep. Steve Womack, a fel­low ap­pro­pri­at­or. “I think there’s an ex­pect­a­tion around here that if you’re in a key lead­er­ship po­s­i­tion, then when the lead­er­ship of­fers you something … you’ll be there for it.”

Frel­inghuysen’s stance on the health bill il­lus­trates the dif­fi­cult and unique po­s­i­tion he is in, both polit­ic­ally and on mat­ters of policy. In a sense, he could not have come to power at a worse time; he is a North­east­ern, mod­er­ate, Re­pub­lic­an who sup­ports abor­tion rights, in a con­fer­ence that has drif­ted away from him.

What’s more, Demo­crats are tar­get­ing his seat for a 2018 elec­tion pick-up, and con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Pres­id­ent Trump and GOP ef­forts to re­peal Obama­care have en­er­gized lib­er­als, who have been protest­ing at Frel­inghuysen’s dis­trict of­fice de­mand­ing he hold a town hall.

Among his col­leagues, Frel­inghuysen’s state­ment was es­pe­cially strik­ing be­cause in or­der to se­cure his chair­man­ship, he had prom­ised lead­ers and mem­bers of the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee that he would not put his per­son­al polit­ics above the will of the con­fer­ence.

“One of the things we had dis­cussed go­ing in­to this, when he wanted to take the chair­man­ship, was that at the end of the day he un­der­stood that when he was ne­go­ti­at­ing these bills he’d be ne­go­ti­at­ing on be­half of the con­fer­ence, as op­posed to his own philo­sophy,” said Rep. Robert Ad­er­holt, an­oth­er ap­pro­pri­at­or. “He’s in a very dif­fi­cult situ­ation with his dis­trict, no doubt, be­cause his dis­trict is more out of sync with the rest of the con­fer­ence.”

Head­ing in­to an end-of-April dead­line to keep the gov­ern­ment fun­ded, col­leagues are left won­der­ing wheth­er Frel­inghuysen can really bal­ance the polit­ic­al and policy needs of his state with his role as a chair­man, es­pe­cially when shep­herd­ing bills through the House that are sure to in­clude budget cuts and anti-abor­tion lan­guage favored by Trump and the ma­jor­ity of the Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence but not by Frel­inghuysen him­self.

Already, Frel­inghuysen has po­si­tioned him­self in op­pos­i­tion to sev­er­al of Trump’s budget pri­or­it­ies. He told con­stitu­ents last month that he is not in­clined to cut fed­er­al fund­ing for the arts, health re­search, or en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion. He also said he wants a de­tailed plan for a bor­der wall be­fore he agrees to fund it, which could set up a fight with the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Frel­inghuysen de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest. But his com­mit­tee spokes­wo­man, Jen­nifer Hing, stressed that any in­di­vidu­al vote Frel­inghuysen has taken should not be mis­taken for an in­dic­a­tion of how he will run his com­mit­tee.

“As al­ways, the com­mit­tee’s products will re­flect the will of the com­mit­tee, the con­fer­ence and ul­ti­mately, the Con­gress,” Hing said.

Still, rank-and-file mem­bers of the power­ful Re­pub­lic­an Steer­ing Com­mit­tee, which de­cides com­mit­tee chair­man­ships, have dis­cussed wheth­er to call a meet­ing to have Frel­inghuysen ex­plain him­self. But lead­er­ship has been re­luct­ant, for fear of open­ing an­oth­er in­tra­party fight, ac­cord­ing to two mem­bers, speak­ing an­onym­ously to dis­cuss in­tern­al con­fer­ence mat­ters.

In­stead, after the state­ment, lead­ers quietly dis­patched ap­pro­pri­ations car­din­al Rep. Tom Graves to get an ex­plan­a­tion.

“I still stand be­hind him,” Graves said. “Does it stress re­la­tion­ships with him and lead­er­ship? Maybe.”

That will be dif­fi­cult to heal in a busi­ness where re­la­tion­ships are cur­rency as much as policies and cam­paign dona­tions. Now, mem­bers noted, it will be all the harder for Frel­inghuysen to cred­ibly ask mem­bers to take one for the team and vote for his spend­ing bills when they can counter that he him­self didn’t. He’ll have to rely on the same whip team he spurned to rally votes for his bills. Fur­ther­more, mem­bers of the con­ser­vat­ive House Free­dom Caucus are smart­ing as they take the brunt of the blame for the health care bill’s fail­ure while Frel­inghuysen goes un­pun­ished, a point that is sure to re­sur­face in fights yet to come.

Giv­en all of that, mem­bers noted, the state­ment was a clumsy move for someone who has spent more than half of his life in polit­ics, and whose fam­ily is one of the coun­try’s most en­dur­ing polit­ic­al dyn­asties, with an­cest­ors in polit­ics dat­ing back to the Con­tin­ent­al Con­gress.

It was clumsy too for someone who un­der­stands his place as an out­lier in the con­fer­ence. Frel­inghuysen is viewed as a hard and smart work­er, and his col­leagues like him be­cause he in­cludes them in poli­cy­mak­ing. But he has few close re­la­tion­ships in Con­gress. Un­der­scor­ing a re­cog­ni­tion of his own vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies, last year he asked Graves to be his lead whip for his bid for chair­man, hop­ing Graves could lend the cam­paign the con­ser­vat­ive co­sign Frel­inghuysen lacked.

Frel­inghuysen had the seni­or­ity for the post, but be­hind the scenes, more con­ser­vat­ive Reps. Ad­er­holt and Kay Granger also con­sidered run­ning. Among their con­cerns were Frel­inghuysen’s past sup­port for and dona­tions to Planned Par­ent­hood. Ul­ti­mately, the whip ef­fort and Frel­inghuysen’s prom­ises to be a team play­er quickly tamped down those con­cerns. Lead­er­ship en­dorsed Frel­inghuysen’s run and he took the gavel without a fight.

With lead­er­ship now look­ing to re­vive the health care bill and with the first gov­ern­ment fund­ing bill of this Con­gress due by the end of April, Frel­inghuysen may have to choose again between his dis­trict and his party. He could be for­giv­en once for turn­ing his back on lead­ers, but per­haps not again.

“Oc­ca­sion­ally you go to the lead­er­ship and say, ‘This is go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult for me,’” Ad­er­holt said. “I think lead­er­ship would un­der­stand. But I think if it’s something that’s a con­tinu­al prob­lem, you get in­to an area that’s a bit more murky.”

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