Once chosen as heir to the conservative movement on Capitol Hill, Rep. Tom Graves is coming back into the establishment fold.
The Georgia congressman known for his votes against government spending is poised to next year become chairman on a subcommittee that directs those very same federal dollars.
That marks an unprecedentedly quick turnaround for a member who was nearly shoved off the Appropriations Committee three years ago for voting against chairmens's bills — and, in fact, was removed from the GOP whip team for advocating against leadership’s positions.
Graves’ colleagues and congressional aides point to his ascent as an example of the maturation of the rambunctious tea party class of 2010 (of which Graves is an honorary member, having joined Congress in a special election just months prior to the wave). His evolution, they say, was spurred by a stinging loss in the 2012 race to chair the conservative Republican Study Committee, despite an endorsement by the group’s founders.
He was on the outs with leadership just months ago, but Graves now inhabits a rare and coveted status on the Hill, drawing accolades from both leadership and outside conservative groups — two camps that have publicly sparred in recent months. Whether he can maintain the middle ground in the long-term has yet to be tested.
In a recent interview in his congressional office, Graves said he is intent on preserving his conservative edge — even with a leadership position on the committee stacked with proud compromisers and deal-cutters who most often attract the intraparty scorn of tea party boosters. The key, he said, is a move from continuing spending to cutting it.
“I think it’s possible to have a conservative serve in a cardinal position, a subcommittee chair position, and be very effective,” he said.
His votes against spending bills were more against continuing resolutions, he said. The committee aspires to produce all spending bills through regular order this year, a process Graves said he would support.
Yet the Georgia Republican, who on his website boasts once sporting a mohawk haircut and riding a motorcycle, is more comfortable in the agitator’s role. His pedigree is that of someone all but groomed to become RSC chairman. In the Georgia statehouse, he co-founded the 216 Policy Group, a cadre of members modeled after the RSC that, at times, advocated against the Republican state speaker’s positions. He was stripped of committee assignments because of it.
So he was naturally frustrated when his campaign to head the RSC was stymied, in part because leadership worked behind the scenes to back his opponent, Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., one of Graves’ closest friends on the Hill, said the high school football standout who now trains for triathlons is an intense competitor.
“Tom obviously was disappointed after the RSC run,” Southerland said. “I’m proud of him for saying, ‘You know what? I’ve got to move on. When the horse is dead, dismount and make a difference.’”
To prove that there are no hard feelings, Graves was asked back onto the whip team last year by the House GOP’s head vote-counter. Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said he has become an invaluable asset to the team, serving as liaison between leadership, appropriators and conservatives.
“He’s good at helping me get votes,” McCarthy said. “He has great knowledge from approps. He has great knowledge from a base within the conference, to explain approps.”
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said Graves gives the committee conservative credibility and he helps attract support from members who might otherwise vote against any spending bills, mostly recently on the omnibus appropriations bill. That may be why Westmoreland used his perch on the Republican Steering Committee to help begrudgingly place Graves on the committee in the first place.
“I don’t know that he really wanted to do it. He didn’t seem really excited about it. But we needed someone conservative on appropriations,” Westmoreland said.
Now, a spate of retirements at the top rungs of the committee put the junior member in line for a chairmanship. But Rep. Tom Cole, who chairs the Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee — the panel Graves is most likely to head next year — said Graves is figuring out his place in the conference.
“I think he’s figuring out that you can be a very conservative member of the appropriations committee and get things done, or you can stand on the outside and throw rocks and not get anything done,” the Oklahoman said.
Graves, a tall, fit 44-year-old, said he has embraced his go-between role. And he has worked to build what he calls a “unique relationship” with Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., a gruff, cigar-puffing 77-year-old.
“It’s been joked about that we’re the odd couple,” Graves said. “We get along very well. We work together. We don’t always agree, but we’re very open and transparent about where we stand on things.”
That relationship underwent some strain during the October government shutdown, aides and members said. Graves pushed a funding bill apart from leadership that would have disallowed financing the Affordable Care Act, and rankled Rogers in the process.
The House eventually passed a different bill defunding Democrats' health care law, but it was not taken up by the Senate, and Graves eventually voted against the deal to end the shutdown. But he later supported the bipartisan budget deal setting topline spending levels for two years.
That vote, and the one he cast for the resulting omnibus appropriations bill, cost Graves some stature with outside groups such as Heritage Action, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, who keep scorecards grading members’ performance on key votes. Graves used to be one of the highest scoring members, but his score this year has dipped.
That is not troubling yet, said FreedomWorks Executive Vice President Adam Brandon. But he is keeping watch.
“I’m not going to go beat him because he’s only voting in the 80s,” he said. “If he starts dipping into the 70s and going native, we’re not going to be cool with that.”
Correction: 6:26 p.m. An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Graves' vote on the bill ending the shutdown.