Republican firebrands elbow leaders

A group of House Republican lawmakers, frustrated with its leaders, is jockeying for position on the GOP’s political stage.

Conservative lawmakers, including Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Louie Gohmert (Texas) and John Shadegg (Ariz.), have been meeting privately to “foment revolution,” according to a source involved in the discussions.

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The group, however, is not aiming to oust GOP leaders. Instead, it is seeking to more aggressively capitalize on the re-energized Republican base and in the process push its leaders to do the same.

While legislators like King and Bachmann have fully embraced the tea-party movement, Republicans have been more circumspect. GOP leadership officials have at times kept the tea party at an arm’s length as Democrats have criticized the movement as extreme.

Bachmann and the other members started their “unofficial collaborating” last October in the wake of an intra-party blow-up over House GOP leaders’ endorsement of Dede Scozzafava in the race to replace retired Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), over the more conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman.

The “quick strike” team, a phrase coined by an aide involved in the effort, coordinated the first “House Call” rally against Democrats’ healthcare reform legislation. Thousands of protesters showed up, many who proudly tout their tea-party credentials.

But this is not just about the tea partiers. Some conservatives in the Republican Conference last year were taken aback when House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) advised his members to get some rest over the Christmas break in order to get ready for 2010.

The comments were interpreted by some as suggesting a letup just as the healthcare debate was entering a critical phase.
King and a handful of other lawmakers subsequently pulled Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) aside to insist that members remain engaged in the message war over healthcare. Unlike other GOP leaders, Pence did not endorse Scozzafava.

At the time, King said in an interview, “We don’t need a break. We need members turning up the heat.”

Pence took the concerns to heart, staffing the conference communications shop the last week of December, when most offices on Capitol Hill are closed for business.

In all, nearly 50 members of the 178-person conference signed up to be included in a list of lawmakers available for daily press interviews initially on healthcare and later on national security in the aftermath of the attempted terrorist plot on Christmas Day.

Some staffers and members have defended Boehner’s December message to his conference.

An aide explained that Boehner advised his colleagues to continue communicating and pushing the message, but also to “recharge your batteries in preparation of the biggest year ever.”

The staffer added that Boehner was a key player in helping facilitate Rep. Parker Griffith’s (Ala.) defection from the Democratic Party last month.

Boehner has also been instrumental in keeping his conference united against Democrats’ big-ticket items, like healthcare and financial regulatory reform.

King said the group’s effort is aimed at getting “aggressive” on pushing conservative policy alternatives.

King explained to The Hill that “we need to be more nimble, flexible and combative whether we are organized as top-down, bottom-up, or inside-out. As long as [President Barack] Obama, [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.], and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] keep jamming us with socialist policy, you will see more and more ad hoc groups putting up a fight.”

Some Democrats relish the thought of King and Bachmann moving front and center of the Republican Party. Both members have been mocked by Democrats, but Bachmann, in particular, has irritated liberals so much that the second-term lawmaker has helped Democratic fundraising efforts.

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Yet even though she is in a competitive district, she was one of the few Republicans elected amid the blue wave of 2006 and reelected two years later.

The friction between the quick-strike group and leadership is not intense, and it is likely a byproduct of GOP growing pains now that the political winds have shifted against the Democratic Party.

One Republican member seeking anonymity explained that the group of rabble-rousers is frustrated not only with the conference leaders but also with the leadership of Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Tom Price (Ga.).

“Instead of the RSC challenging, questioning or pushing leadership, the RSC simply says ‘Mother, may I?’ to leadership instead of leading the fight,” the source said.

Price spokesman Brendan Buck responded, “The last thing most folks associate with Chairman Price is a lack of aggressiveness. Since day one, Chairman Price has worked with our members to ensure the RSC is leading with bold conservative solutions, on the floor, in the media and in talks with our leadership, to move the Republican membership and the Congress to a more principled place.”

GOP leaders have participated in tea-party rallies, but on the first House Call, Bachmann led the charge. She appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on the Fox News Channel, urging people to participate in the rally.

There is some concern in Republican circles that the tea-party initiatives could hamper GOP efforts to attract independent voters in the midterm elections.

Bachmann disagrees. During an appearance on “The O’Reilly Show” this week, she said, “What we’re seeing is that the Republican Party is waking up to and recognizing that the real uprising happening across America isn’t just about Republicans, but disaffected Democrats and independents saying, ‘Wait a minute, the country isn’t working anymore.’”

Bachmann and others in the quick-strike group on Wednesday will unveil a “Declaration of Healthcare Independence.” This GOP alternative to the Democrats’ legislation has been spearheaded by Bachmann, who appeared with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) in November and will join forces with her again this spring.

Though Republican leaders are aware of the Wednesday press event, they were not consulted for guidance.

“Leaders may be aware, but we’re not asking for permission,” one of the participants, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), said in an interview.

Pence said that leadership has encouraged members of the conference to be “entrepreneurial” with their ideas and tactics.