California’s Tom McClintock centers himself on the right

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., talks with voters after speaking to a tea party group at the Rocklinevent Center on April 16, 2014 in Rocklin, Calif.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., talks with voters after speaking to a tea party group at the Rocklinevent Center on April 16, 2014 in Rocklin, Calif. Los Angeles Times

California Rep. Tom McClintock is accustomed to anchoring the House’s right wing, but something has changed. Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s the wing, maybe it’s a little bit of both.

In brief, the Republican splintering that undermined House Speaker John Boehner and thwarted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has redrawn the party’s battle lines. The arch-right House Freedom Caucus is now pushing positions well beyond where McClintock wants to be.

“I think their tactics have become counterproductive for the enactment of a conservative agenda,” McClintock said in an interview.

A charter member of the House Freedom Caucus when it began earlier this year, McClintock quit the group last month. Just last year, the American Conservative Union had given him a 99 percent lifetime support score. Only one House of Representatives Republican was more consistent.

The withdrawal of the veteran legislator from the most combative arm of the Republican Party left behind questions about what it means these days to be a conservative.

The answers could shape McClintock’s own future in a GOP-friendly district that sweeps through the Sierra Nevada, from Placer County in the north to Fresno County in the south. In 2014, McClintock’s electoral challenge came from a fellow Republican, Army veteran Art Moore, who denounced the incumbent’s alleged ideological rigidity.

I feel that the (House Freedom Caucus’) many missteps have made it counterproductive to its stated goals and I no longer wish to be associated with it.

Rep. Tom McClintock’s resignation letter to the House Freedom Caucus

More broadly, the answers reflect how the 40 or so members of the House Freedom Caucus now dominate Capitol Hill’s endless palace intrigue. Even with the House speakership turmoil settled, the caucus that was too hard core for Tom McClintock is not going away.

“That he’s more moderate gives you an idea of how far right they are,” said Rep. John Garamendi, a California Democrat who has periodically clashed with McClintock.

Republicans speak less harshly but offer a similar analysis.

“Tom is a really principled guy, a guy whose conservatism is unquestioned,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a close ally of Boehner’s. “That someone like that is leaving because he thinks that what you’re doing is not wrong in your aims, but wrong in your tactics, would make me stop and think.”

Though its membership remains somewhat opaque even among fellow Republicans, with no formal public roster, the House Freedom Caucus is the latest evolution of what’s been called tea party conservatism. McClintock was the first and, so far, only Californian to join.

His membership made sense. In the past, he’s been willing to take what seem like uncompromising positions.

In July 2013, for instance, McClintock proposed cutting $100 million from the Essential Air Service subsidy for rural airports. The measure was handily defeated by an alliance of Democrats and centrist Republicans.

Likewise, a McClintock-led effort last April to cut energy efficiency and renewable energy funding enjoyed support of Freedom Caucus members. But while McClintock called the funding “corporate welfare,” a fellow Republican said the amendment went “too far” and the House roundly rejected it, 311-110.

On Wednesday, the House by a mostly party-line 235-194 vote approved a McClintock bill designed to prevent a government default if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling. The measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

McClintock’s views can defy characterization. Even with his conservative bona fides, the American Civil Liberties Union gave him a higher rating on positions for 2013-2014 than any other House Republican from California.

“Tom is a real thoughtful guy,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “He has a long history of being a leader of the conservative libertarian movement.”

On Sept. 16, McClintock also became the first to quit the House Freedom Caucus.

In his public resignation letter, McClintock cited the caucus’s hard-line tactics that sometimes have included a willingness to join with Democrats to defeat the House’s GOP leadership. He criticized, for instance, the caucus’ opposition to a trade bill and its willingness to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding.

There’s dissension within the Freedom Caucus over the tactics they’re employing.

Rep. Tom McClintock

McClintock’s resignation came shortly before an oft-frustrated Boehner announced his retirement and McCarthy felt compelled to pull the plug on his own bid to become speaker. In the tumultuous weeks since, McClintock said he’s seen nothing to make him reconsider his withdrawal from the House Freedom Caucus.

“I’ve actually had a number of them come up to me privately and thank me for making these points,” McClintock said. “There’s dissension within the Freedom Caucus over the tactics they’re employing.”

On Oct. 9, Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., became the second House Freedom Caucus member to resign from the group.

In a brief interview, caucus member Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said simply that he did not agree with McClintock’s assessment. The probability of future House turmoil prompted by tactical dissensions and factional intransigence remains high.

Still, a majority of caucus members have reportedly agreed to support Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as House speaker in the upcoming elections.

McClintock, too, supports Ryan, though the former vice presidential candidate has sometimes strayed from hard-line conservative orthodoxy.

“Sometimes history doesn’t give us choices. sometimes history gives us orders. And when it does, we have to obey,” McClintock said of Ryan’s initially reluctant candidacy. “This is such a time.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10