As election looms, outspoken Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King adopts softer tone

Facing a tough reelection fight, outspoken Iowa Rep. Steve King (R) has suddenly become a bit reserved.

King, known for being a renegade, has played a more measured role in his dealings on Capitol Hill.

At this point in the 2010 election cycle, the insomniac, fire-cracker conservative was traversing the country leading rallies for Tea Party House candidates, where he decried the president’s healthcare law and defended Arizona’s stringent immigration laws.

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King certainly continues to feel strongly about those issues. Yet, he also has shown flashes of pragmatism this year.

King, locked in a battle with his Democratic opponent, former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, kept his head down as he helped to move a five-year farm bill through the House Agriculture Committee.

The five-term lawmaker told The Hill that he started gearing up last year for the twice-in-a-decade authorization measure — often derided by hardcore conservatives for artificially bolstering the agriculture industry.

“One thing I think that most members of this Congress don’t understand about me is that I have a very large, long-term agenda … try to create short, mid- and long-term openings so that I am laying the groundwork to be as effective as I can each and every day,” King said in a recent interview.

Agriculture matters are vital to his home state. In fact, King and his congressional colleagues in Iowa recently implored GOP leadership to move the farm bill before breaking for August recess. The measure, lacking votes, did not hit the House floor, though it could later in 2012.

King’s opponent is married to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of the Agriculture Department.

Many political observers will focus on Iowa this fall, partly because it is a battleground state for the presidential election, but also because the state lost one of its five House seats during reapportionment. That has pitted two senior incumbents, Rep. Tom Latham (R) and Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), against each other.

But according to the July financial disclosure reports, King and Vilsack have raised more than $2 million apiece so far, having spent little over $1 million on their respective campaigns to date.

That is a lot more money than the Latham/Boswell battle, where Latham — a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — has spent $1.05 million, to Boswell’s $767,950. 

It is noteworthy that King’s name was nowhere to be found when Tea Party Caucus co-founder Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) enlisted Judiciary Committee Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and others to sign a controversial letter requesting an investigation into longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s possible ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

King and Bachmann are close friends, and have worked on many issues together — most notably opposing “ObamaCare.”

One GOP lawmaker told The Hill that King has been “very careful” this election cycle.

“Steve has actually been very thoughtful while he’s been in this race,” said the member, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the situation.

For his part, King said that Bachmann did not ask him to sign the letter, which attracted criticism from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Boehner.

The GOP legislator who spoke on background added that King has worked with Latham to make sure that the neighboring Iowa GOP lawmakers — both locked in toss up races —don’t create openings for their opponents to use against them in the fall.

“[King has] been very careful not to get cross ways with Latham. They talk about things … any time one of them votes one way and the other votes another, it’s potentially some sort of opening,” the lawmaker explained.

Asked whether he was huddling with Latham for political reasons, King said that it has happened, but only rarely in his 10 years.

“There have been a few times where I thought, ‘This could put Tom Latham in a bad spot,’ and it’s a jump ball anyway. I can’t tell you what they are … it’s vague in my memory,” King said.

Earlier this week, King suggested he wanted to repeal all legislation President Obama has signed into law. The remark attracted national media attention, and appeared consistent with his rhetoric against the administration.

But on Friday, King said he was joking. He and other Republicans have supported some Obama laws, such as the extension of the Bush-era tax rates in 2010.

As a senior member of the Agriculture Committee, the bulk of King's attention has focused squarely on the farm bill.

Noting that he “beefed up” his personal office staff to get his “fingers on the pulse” of interests in the agricultural district, King said that he wanted to be ready for prime time when the Agriculture Committee set to work this year.

“When we got into this farm bill … you better bring your agenda when you mark up a farm bill because you have to wait half a decade before you are going to do it again and so I geared up for this,” King said.

Despite his staunchly conservative bona fides, King was at odds with some of his right-wing colleagues on the Agriculture panel.

Still, he saw that Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), “the maestro,” and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) “put together this bipartisan [bill] that made it through some really tough hurdles.”

And instead of creating roadblocks with his “own personal agenda,” King opted to play the role of peacemaker during the 15-hour marathon markup of the measure last month.

“The message that I was sending across the committee for 15 hours was, that of a stable voice: I didn’t speak unless I had to, if I did, I had a purpose,” King recalled, adding that he wondered why he “was so exhausted the next day.”

“It’s because I had to be mentally on for 15 hours to broker the differences that were going on throughout the dynamics. Democrats, Republicans, senior members, more junior members…” King said.

At some point over the last few months, King realized that due to his seniority (and the fact that Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has served as chairman of the committee) he would be next in line to head the panel if he survives his re-election race. 

After being passed over for chairman of Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee last year, King has established his ability to be a team player during the farm bill mark up, Lucas told The Hill.

“Mr. King was a team player and a positive force in the marathon markup,” Lucas said, noting that though the GOP Steering Committee makes the final pick, King “would be next in line … it is reasonable that he would be competitive for the spot.”