Republicans worry election lessons haven't been learned

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill are worried that many in the GOP are failing to learn from last week’s election drubbing and appear unwilling to take the steps needed to avoid more fallout from this year’s series of scandals.

Some Republicans are quietly calling on the GOP conference to deny Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) the ranking member position on the appropriations panel, according to three knowledgeable GOP sources. Lewis is under investigation by the FBI for steering lucrative appropriations contracts to former staffers, and many believe the party cannot afford to have another member of its leadership under investigation and perhaps indicted. Lewis has denied any wrongdoing.

Lewis spokesman Jon Scofield denied that anyone has approached his boss about accepting anything less than the ranking member position on Appropriations or that Lewis is considering retiring if he does not obtain it.

Kevin Madden, spokesman for Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said the steering committee will choose ranking members, noting that there are “no hard and fast rules about seniority.”

Boehner is in the middle of a campaign for minority leader, and Madden declined to discuss anything about Lewis specifically.

A spokesman for Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), another contender for the top House GOP leadership job, did not respond to inquiries.

But Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), also running for minority leader, said Monday that all ranking member positions, including his own, would be subject to the will of the steering committee.

“He has confidence in the committee members’ good judgment,” Barton spokesman Kevin Schweers added.

Allowing the steering committee to choose ranking members could set off a scramble for the top GOP post on several committees. Some GOP members are suggesting that Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who ran the House GOP reelection effort and survived a tough fight to hold onto his own seat, would be more effective in the ranking position on the Ways and Means panel than some of the more senior members of the committee, although he is not actively seeking the assignment, GOP sources said.

Reynolds’s strong personality could help out in the minority, but to attain that post he would have to leapfrog over several more senior members, including Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who many believed would become chairman if Republicans had retained the majority. 

Elevating Reynolds could pose its own ethics problems. He was criticized late in the campaign for knowing about former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) inappropriate messages to pages and failing to act to stop it.

Several Republicans on K Street said they were also flabbergasted when they received a solicitation for donations to a legal defense fund for a staffer at the center of the page scandal. The e-mail request for money was sent a day after the election when Republicans were still reeling from the losses.

“I am astonished by the audacity of this,” one GOP lobbyist remarked in an e-mail. “They didn’t even wait a respectful amount of time so that people could get over their grief over last night’s results.”

Jay Timmons, senior vice president of policy and government at the National Association of Manufacturers and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent the e-mail, entitled “Kirk Fordham’s legal expenses,” last Wednesday to several K Street lobbyists, asking them to forward it to others. 

Fordham resigned as Reynolds’s chief of staff last month. Before moving to Reynolds’s office, he had been Foley’s chief of staff, and when the page scandal broke, claimed he had tried to warn senior staffers in Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) office about Foley’s behavior at least a year earlier. Hastert’s staffers dispute this, and argument between Fordham’s and Hastert’s offices over the issue produced several days of headlines for a story that many Republicans believe cemented their election debacle.

“Having served behind the scenes as a respected congressional staffer and political strategist for the last 16 years, Kirk has gained a reputation as one of the most honest and decent people serving in Washington,” Timmons wrote in the e-mail. “As the events surrounding Congressman Mark Foley’s resignation unfolded, Kirk responded as all of us who know him would expect him to. Instead of abandoning Foley and his family during this time, Kirk provided direction to ensure that Foley was able to get the help and treatment he needed.”

The e-mail goes on to ask recipients to “make a generous donation” to help Fordham cover his mounting legal bills and notes that “personal or corporate checks are permitted” and that there are no public disclosure requirements for this fund, so the donations will remain private.

“Now, through no fault of his own, Kirk is faced with significant legal bills,” the e-mail continues. “While he his not being accused of any wrongdoing, Kirk has been forced to retain costly legal representation as he cooperates with law enforcement authorities and the House Ethics Committee in their inquiries.” 

Timmons explained that the e-mail was simply an effort to help a friend.

“I’m sure everybody has their views on this,” he said. “The bottom line is that there are a group of us that are friends with Kirk and want to make sure that he is able to meet his legal obligations. That’s all it is … This is merely friends helping out another friend.”