The head of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth said Thursday he wished congressional Republicans showed the same courage of their convictions as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — arguing the GOP could learn a lesson in leadership from the former Speaker’s push to pass healthcare reform.
He pointed specifically to her effort to win House approval of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 — despite polls showing it could cost Democrats the House majority.
"[Pelosi] knew public opinion was against her. She knew it was a fight of all fights in the House to get [healthcare reform] passed. She knew that her majority would be put at risk, that she could actually lose her Speakership over this, but she did it anyway. She found a way to do it," Chocola said. "And she lost her majority, but it's the law today.”
That determination is a quality Chocola said he wishes Republican leaders would show more of in current fights with Democrats over issues like government spending, debt reduction and entitlement reform.
“I just wish that Republicans would believe in something that much, that they would say 'We're willing to die politically over this,' " he said.
"I wish [GOP leaders] will take the example of the risk of leadership that Nancy Pelosi provided in that debate," Chocola continued, lamenting that Democrats "are more committed to their ideology and willing to suffer the consequences of actually making it reality than the Republicans are."
Chocola also gave President Obama "credit" for standing on principle, even though he sharply disagrees with his views.
Obama "believes stuff, and he's going to try and fight like heck for it," Chocola said. "I just hope the Republicans fight back as hard as he does."
The Club for Growth has significant influence within the GOP because of its deep pockets and willingness to be active in Republican primaries to back the most conservative candidates.
The group also makes a point to target some "incumbents behaving badly" — as Chocola put it — including former Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah).
The Club is a regular thorn in the side of Republican leaders, pushing them toward more conservative positions and away from compromise with Democrats on fiscal issues.
Chocola, who served in the House from 2003-2007, said while some GOP leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had shown strong backbone in pushing for uncompromisingly conservative positions, other lawmakers are “always running scared.”
“There's a large-group called the weak-kneed caucus,” Chocola said. He said that while the GOP conference as a whole had improved since his two terms in Congress a decade ago, too many members still refused to take hard votes.
“The only thing that motivates most members of Congress is keeping their job. They have this really destructive argument with themselves: 'I can't be relevant today, because if I actually become relevant, I might not be here to be irrelevant tomorrow. I can't take the hard vote now because I might not be here to take the hard vote later,' " he said. "But they never do.”
The Club has played a big role in conservative defections against Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on legislation including the debt ceiling and “fiscal cliff,” as well as the final bill that gave aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Chocola noted that House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — in a bid to convince Republican lawmakers to support legislation temporarily lifting the debt ceiling — told GOP members the Club wasn’t opposing the legislation.
Chocola said that the Club didn't oppose the temporary debt ceiling increase because it will force Senate Democrats to put together their own budget — something they've avoided doing for years — and go on record with their policy proposals.
He also argued that even if the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a single budget, there is “some value” in forcing President Obama “to say no.”
Chocola said GOP House leaders have rarely reached out to him, either to solicit his opinions or complain about the group's efforts. He said they don't "owe us anything" but could benefit from knowing the group's thinking since it affected how members voted.
He was also critical of their handling of debt ceiling negotiations, saying there'd been "no plan to address these things before the crisis hits" in most rounds of negotiations. The most recent move by the House GOP, to raise the debt ceiling until May, was the first sign of advance planning, he said. It was a "good thing ... that they're "trying to get ahead of it."
Chocola said that he wants Republicans follow through on their promise to put out a budget that balances in 10 years’ time, to stick with the level of cuts included in sequestration and push for some long-term entitlement reforms.
Many in the GOP establishment have blamed the Club and other conservative groups for backing unelectable candidates who went on to lose their general election campaigns in 2012.
But Chocola pointed out that a number of establishment-backed Republicans — including former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Reps. Denny Rehberg (Mont.), Rick Berg (N.D.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.) — also lost Senate races. He said their losses came “because people couldn’t really figure out what they believe,” and pointed out just two Club-backed Senate candidates had lost general election campaigns in the last two election cycles.
“Our view is principle trumps electability. In fact, it creates electability,” he said. “If the Republicans’ focus on principled candidates who can articulate clearly, convincingly a fiscally conservative message, and the hope and the opportunity of the free-market system, they can win anywhere.”
Two failed GOP Senate candidates — Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock and former Rep. Todd Akin (Mo.) — have been held up as examples of flawed conservative candidate who lost otherwise winnable races for the GOP.
Chocola pointed out that the group did not back Akin. He stood by the Club’s endorsement of Mourdock, describing him as a “very credible guy who made a big, big mistake” with his controversial remarks on rape and abortion.
Chocola didn’t say which incumbent GOP senators the group may target in the 2014 election.
He didn’t rule out backing a challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But Chocola said there would have to be “a whole bunch of dynamics” in play to get involved, including an excellent alternative candidate, but that none had yet emerged.
He was similarly non-committal about backing a challenger to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who is likely to face a primary. Chocola pointed out that Chambliss’s lifetime score on the Club’s voting scorecard was much better than that of the group’s earlier targets, like Lugar.
Both Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) haven’t ruled out a bid against Chambliss, and both have near-sterling voting records in the Club’s eyes.
— Alexandra Jaffe contributed.