Of the seven, Young, Poliquin, Denham and Valadao are among Democrats’ biggest targets this election cycle. And Democrats see the vote-switching as a prime way to counter those Republicans’ claims of independence from their leadership and paint them as hiding their actions from the public.
Members of the House GOP leadership, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick McHenry (N.C.) lobbied multiple Republicans to change their votes when an amendment authored by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) had enough support to pass on Thursday.
The night before, the House had passed the annual defense authorization with a provision that effectively exempts religious organizations from an executive order President Obama issued in 2014 that prohibits federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Maloney’s amendment to a spending bill for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) would have prohibited the use of funds that don’t comply with Obama’s executive order. Republicans held the vote open for seven minutes so that GOP leaders could persuade enough of their members to change votes and ensure it failed by a single vote, 212-213.
Democrats watching the vote tally move from passage to failure jumped to their feet and began shouting at the GOP side of the chamber, chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Most of the seven Republicans haven’t responded to inquiries about whether they changed their votes. But those who did aren’t denying the accusation, either.
Young’s spokeswoman, for instance, told Des Moines CBS affiliate KCCI that "The congressman's recorded vote today was both consistent with his position and previous recorded votes on this issue."
An official for House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), told The Hill that the vote is expected to become a major issue in a competitive race like Young’s. Nonpartisan political prognosticators like the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate Young’s district as a “toss up.”
Young’s expected general election opponent, Democrat Jim Mowrer, seized on Young’s vote as local news headlines piled up about Young’s role in the House floor chaos.
“This type of extreme partisanship is something we should expect from someone who has never held a job outside of Congress,” Mowrer said in a statement. “This is why we need new representation in Congress and why I believe so strongly in putting service to Iowans ahead of politics.”
Poliquin denied in a statement that he had been pressured by GOP leaders to change his vote. He maintained that he supports the language in the defense authorization that offers religious exemptions.
“I am outraged that political opponents or members of the press would claim or insinuate that I cast a vote due to pressure or party politics. No one controls my vote,” Poliquin said in a statement, adding that "I abhor discrimination in any form and at any place.”
Poliquin’s expected Democratic opponent, Emily Cain, noted that the freshman lawmaker voted last year in support of a similar amendment to a Transportation Department spending bill that prohibited the use of funds by federal contractors to discriminate against the LGBT community.
“Congressman Poliquin apparently has no moral compass on the issue of discrimination,” Cain said in a statement on Friday. “But what’s truly disappointing is that Congressman Poliquin didn’t come clean with voters, but instead reversed himself in secret as part of a backroom deal with Republican leadership.”
Both the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball also rate Poliquin’s race as a “toss up.”
Local news headlines about Poliquin’s vote were largely unflattering. “Poliquin takes flak for switching to vote against LGBT-rights provision,” blared a headline in the Bangor Daily News. “Poliquin among 7 House Republicans to switch votes, defeating gay rights protection,” read another in the Portland Press Herald.
Denham and Valadao, meanwhile, are considered vulnerable but not to the same degree as Poliquin and Young. The Cook Political Report rates Denham and Valadao's races as "Lean Republican," while Sabato considers them "Likely Republican."
House GOP leaders defended their actions, saying that passage of the underlying VA spending bill could have been thrown into doubt if Maloney’s amendment was adopted.
“Our veterans and troops were prioritized over a political messaging amendment that could have jeopardized the final passage of the appropriations bill,” said AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanNo time for the timid: The dual threats of progressives and Trump Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power Cheney takes shot at Trump: 'I like Republican presidents who win re-election' MORE (R-Wis.). Ryan himself was at a Capitol news conference when the vote occurred and was not on the House floor at the time.
“I know people were being told this would jeopardize the bill,” one GOP lawmaker said of the whip operation.
The process under which the amendment was considered may have further added to the confusion among Republicans.
Maloney was able to offer the amendment because the spending bill was brought to the floor under a procedure that allows lawmakers to offer unlimited numbers of amendments without any advance notice. Because the amendment was offered right before the vote series began, some Republicans said they weren't even briefed on the issue.
By contrast, GOP leaders were prepared for another Democratic amendment that restricted the display of the Confederate flag in national cemeteries. That measure, offered by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), was unveiled shortly after midnight early on Thursday morning and passed later that morning.
"We didn't know what was happening until we were walking to the floor," another GOP lawmaker said of the LGBT measure. "From my personal experience, my staff and I had no idea that amendment would be run. I wasn't briefed on that amendment."
- Scott Wong contributed