Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson says fellow Republican Rep. Raul Labrador has forever undermined his effectiveness with an “irresponsible” role in plotting to defeat GOP House Speaker John Boehner.
“I think there are 15 or 16 members of our conference that have substantially lost credibility,” said Simpson, one of Boehner’s closest friends in the House.
Labrador was one of three leaders among conservatives upset with Boehner, R-Ohio, for making the Jan. 1 fiscal cliff deal. The dissidents tried to muster enough Republican votes to slow down or stop re-election of Boehner as speaker. They called off their plan a half-hour before the Jan. 3 vote.
Customarily, combatants put aside their differences once the majority picks a leader behind closed doors, joining their party mates for a unanimous public vote on the House floor.
But Labrador let his disloyalty be known publicly as one of 12 Republicans who either didn’t vote for Boehner or didn’t vote at all. Labrador twice ignored the clerk calling his name — and even received one vote to be speaker from fellow ringleader Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.
“He just didn’t vote,” Simpson said, shaking his head in anger. “Which, as anyone who’s ever been in a legislative body will tell you, you got one thing going for you and that’s your credibility. And once you lose that credibility it’s gone and it’s gone forever.”
In response, Labrador called Simpson a “bully” and “an old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise.”
“That’s how you get to a $1 trillion deficit, by just tinkering around the edges,” Labrador said. “But I think we live in a new world where we have some very serious fiscal issues in America, and you need to have people who are willing to say ‘no’ to a lot of things — things that are very popular back home — and that are willing to put their political careers on the line.”
Labrador criticized Simpson for publicizing their differences, saying he had declined to talk to reporters until he meets Tuesday with Boehner. “I think it’s really unfortunate that I have to talk to you about this, because I really wanted to talk to Boehner first.”
SIMPSON: GOVERNING MEANS UNITY
Simpson said Labrador and other tea party-aligned rebels have jeopardized their careers. Some in the group already have been stripped of key committee assignments by GOP leadership.
Simpson, beginning his 15th year in Congress, is a former speaker of the Idaho House. He responded to questions Wednesday while attending a City Club of Boise forum.
Simpson recounted his own experience when he ran against then-Idaho Speaker Tom Boyd, losing in the closed-door GOP caucus by three votes in 1990.
“We came out, and we all voted for Tom Boyd,” Simpson recalled. “And that’s the way it’s supposed to work, that’s what it means to be in the governing majority. To try to undermine that with 25 or 30 of your colleagues to overrun the will of what the majority of our conference voted for is, frankly, irresponsible.”
Jim Weatherby, a retired political scientist at Boise State, said Simpson took a rare step in calling out a state and party colleague.
He said, however, that the now-open rift between Idaho’s only two House members is no shock.
Labrador jumped to prominence in the Idaho Legislature in 2008 by organizing to oust Gov. Butch Otter’s choice for chairman of the Idaho Republican Party and in 2009 by battling with Otter over transportation taxes. He won both fights.
In Congress, Labrador quickly became a national media figure as a Hispanic tea party Republican, making four appearances on “Meet the Press” in his first two years.
From the start, Labrador mused about expelling Boehner and every committee chairman. He was known for “obnoxious outbursts” in caucus and lunging for the microphone to blast Boehner, according to Robert Draper’s spring 2011 book about 87 freshman Republicans, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.”
“He’s fearless,” Weatherby said. “Perhaps my only surprise is that it has taken this long for a public breach.”
But beginning his third year by trying to depose the king and failing may compromise Labrador’s effectiveness, Weatherby said. “He’s in league with a distinct minority in the GOP caucus who have been punished for not following the caucus line. The consequences of Labrador’s coup could be costly to him and Idaho.”
Weatherby said Boehner appeared to chide Labrador and his allies when he spoke to the House after his re-election. “So if you have come here to see your name in lights or to pass off political victory as accomplishment, you have come to the wrong place,” Boehner said. “The door is behind you.”
Boehner spokesman Micheal Steel did not reply to the Statesman’s request for comment.
BEHIND A FAILED COUP
When Republicans who control the House gathered Jan. 3 to select their speaker for the new Congress, Labrador and other Boehner critics aimed to gather enough votes to deny Boehner a first-ballot win. They hoped the prospect of a second ballot might prompt a senior Republican to challenge Boehner for the speakership. None did.
The group planned to pull the trigger if they had 25 votes, though they needed only 17 for a second ballot. They retreated when the count fell to 24, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Labrador acknowledged, “I told some of my friends that they were released” from pledges to oppose Boehner.
Weatherby said he’s puzzled by Labrador’s open defiance after calling off the rebellion. “The last thing you want to do is be known as part of an unsuccessful coup,” Weatherby said.
By that time, Labrador said, his disloyalty already was known.
“There was an opportunity,” Labrador said. “We had the numbers to actually win this thing. Nobody took the challenge. So, I felt that I still needed to be true to myself.”
Labrador said he hopes Boehner will get tougher with President Obama as Congress works to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling in coming weeks.
“Maybe Boehner needs to know that the conservatives have the numbers to be effective in a coup, but maybe it’s not the right time,” Labrador said. “And maybe he’s the leader that needs to rise to become strong against the president.”
Labrador said he’s not worried about being stripped of committee assignments, as were three Boehner foes after they opposed Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget bill last month. “I think he wants to come out stronger from this not by punishing, but by learning,” Labrador said.
“I think I’m very effective, and I think that this will actually help the speaker become stronger.”
Labrador was the lone Idaho lawmaker to oppose the fiscal cliff deal. Simpson as well as GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch backed the compromise to preserve lower income tax rates for individual taxpayers making less than $400,000.
Simpson said he’s among those House Republicans doing the difficult business of governing, reflecting the reality that Democrats control the Senate and White House.
“I’ll be the first to acknowledge that there are a thousand reasons to vote no on any bill of consequence,” Simpson said. “It is much harder to vote yes on bills that are politically difficult. I’m fully aware that I’ve taken some difficult votes, but I believe they were the only responsible path forward for our economy and our country’s future.”
Spokesmen for Crapo and Risch said the Simpson-Labrador split “is an internal House issue” and that their bosses don’t think it will affect the work the four do on behalf of Idaho.