Rep. Tim Huelskamp has watched approvingly as the establishment House Republican dominoes have tumbled – first Speaker John Boehner quitting Congress, then Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s shocking withdrawal from the race to be the new speaker – but he’s still far from pleased.
Boehner has left a parting gift: a two-year, $80 billion budget deal negotiated by the lame-duck speaker with fellow congressional leaders and the Obama administration that also raises the nation’s borrowing limit. That deal has the firebrand conservative Republican from Kansas’ Big First district fuming.
“@SpeakerBoehner’s final gift to @BarackObama: $1.5 trillion in new #debt,” Huelskamp tweeted Tuesday.
House Republicans have been in upheaval since Boehner, under pressure from elements of his party’s hard right flank, decided to pack his golf clubs and return to Ohio, and Huelskamp has been at the center of the chaos. As a member of the House Freedom Caucus, the rebellious band of hard-line conservatives, and chairman of the Tea Party Caucus, Huelskamp clashed with Boehner and his lieutenants, constantly attacking them for being too eager to work with congressional Democrats and too soft on President Barack Obama.
House Republicans are scheduled to name their nominee for speaker – presumably House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – on Wednesday, and the full 435-member House of Representatives is expected to vote on Boehner’s replacement Thursday.
It isn’t clear whether Huelskamp can really take much credit for the dramatic shakeup in the House GOP leadership, which would assume Huelskamp was working behind the scenes to force Boehner out. But there’s no question that he relished his role in Boehner’s exit and is leveraging it to increased his stature among conservatives.
“Huelskamp has made a national name for himself. His willingness to go on MSNBC into enemy territory has made him one of the poster children for the tea party and Freedom Caucus,” said Chapman Rackaway, an associate political science professor at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan.
“I think it’s safe to say there’s few if any members of Congress who had a more contentious relationship with Speaker Boehner,” Rackaway said. “Now, at the very least . . . the primary person who had an ax to grind against Huelskamp isn’t there to mobilize resources against him.”
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor, said Huelskamp has come to signify “the hardest of the hard core” within the Freedom Caucus, which has “highlighted his status within the Republican Party” nationally and in Kansas.
A sign of that? Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted that Huelskamp voiced objections to the National Defense Authorization Act, which Obama vetoed because it circumvented mandatory spending caps by funneling an additional $38 billion to the Pentagon through a special account not subject to the caps.
“He said this bill . . . uses budget gimmicks to get around spending caps established by Washington,” Earnest said. “I think this is a very rare instance where Mr. Huelskamp is expressing a concern that is generally shared by the Obama administration.”
But will Huelskamp – and Kansas – benefit from his increased profile? In Kansas, agricultural officials are hoping that a new speaker will finally return a Kansan to the House Agriculture Committee.
Huelskamp was kicked off both that committee and the House Budget Committee in 2012 by Boehner allies as payback for Huelskamp’s outspokenness and for bucking the party on key votes. Traditionally, the representative from the Big First sits on the ag committee. But Ryan Flickner, policy director for the Kansas Farm Bureau, said it doesn’t matter whether it’s Huelskamp or another member of the Kansas delegation, just as long as it’s a Kansan.
“We have some counties that are absolutely in love with Tim Huelskamp and wish they had 434 others just like him,” said Flickner, whose organization didn’t endorse a candidate in the state’s 1st Congressional District last election. “But there are others who say, ‘Well, wait a minute, we don’t need a speed bump to make everything more difficult.’”
Then there’s the question of how Huelskamp’s role in the House speaker’s drama will play on the campaign trail. He faces two challengers in next year’s Republican primary: obstetrician Roger Marshall and student retention specialist Alan LaPolice.
Marshall’s campaign outraised Huelskamp’s for two consecutive quarters, but the incumbent already has $700,000 in his war chest and the potential to get more money and assistance from tea party and conservative groups.
FreedomWorks, a tea party organization, already spent $45,000 for two weeks of cable television ads earlier this month in Huelskamp’s district, praising his work in Washington.
“The establishment is coming after him, and we’re committed to defending him,” said Jason Pye, FreedomWork’s communications director. “He’s one of the best of the best.”
Huelskamp has succeeded in turning his committee banishments into a conservative badge of honor by using them to bolster his credentials as an outsider who doesn’t toe the establishment Republican line, a speaker of truth to power – even if it’s to the speaker of the House.
He has a 100 percent conservative rating from FreedomWorks and is tied as the 21st most conservative member of Congress, with an 89 percent rating from Heritage Action for America, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation.
With few legislative accomplishments to his name and no plum committee assignments, Huelskamp now will be able point to Boehner’s defeat as the fulfillment of his promise to fight “establishment” Republican politics in Washington.
“He’ll at least get two (elections) out of this,” Rackaway said. “Boehner is not particularly popular in pockets of the 1st District, and if there’s nothing else he can say, he can say, ‘I helped bring Boehner down and helped advance the cause of a real conservative agenda in the House of Representatives.’”
Huelskamp doesn’t hide his satisfaction in helping to depose Boehner and crippling the chances of McCarthy, R-Calif., to succeed him.
“It took two and a half years for my position to prevail but I think it was a victory for the American people, and millions of people out there say, ‘OK, finally, but now where do we go from here?’” Huelskamp said shortly after Boehner’s announced exit.
While the Freedom Caucus has given its blessing to Ryan, Huelskamp and others have expressed reservations about former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate.
They question his support for bailing out Wall Street financial institutions, overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, and forging a budget pact with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in 2013.
Huelskamp has also expressed concerns about Ryan’s demand for limited weekend work as speaker in order to spend more time with his family in Wisconsin.
“He made some demands,” Huelskamp said of Ryan. “I’m just hopeful we’ll have a speaker, though, to go to the White House and make demands to the president.”
In the meantime, Flickner hopes that if Huelskamp opposes Ryan that it won’t hurt Kansas’ interests in the House.
“I would hope not and if it does, I would hope other Kansans in D.C. step up and try to mitigate that harmful nature,” he said.
White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.