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Since joining the House Rules Committee last fall, Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.) has become a secret weapon for the Republican Party in complex legislative warfare, but she has also sometimes performed like a loose cannon.
Her higher public profile has been a blessing and a curse for House Republican leadership. They have praised Foxx for her unrelenting energy and willingness to dig into legislative details, but they have winced quietly at her mistakes.
Foxx first took center stage during the House Republican protests last August, when GOPers took over the floor to protest the Democratic decision to adjourn for the summer without a comprehensive energy bill. She attended the protest for a dozen days, more than any other member of the Republican Conference.
Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) appointed Foxx to the Rules Committee in January after Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) left the panel to serve as the ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee.
Congresswoman Foxxs reputation as a hard-working and committed Member, and a tenacious debater particularly during last summers battle for an all of the above energy policy made her a great choice for the Rules Committee, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
I enjoy being prepared, so that if Im asked to speak on a bill, I will spend time reading the bill, reading the material, understanding it, Foxx said. I want to be prepared for whatever Im involved in.
She has earned her stripes as a tireless debater in the Rules Committee over the past few months and has faced down the toughest and most combative Democrats much to the delight of the heavily outnumbered Republicans on the panel.
Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) once said he felt sorry for the other Members on the Rules Committee who had to work with her.
She will take on anybody, Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) said. If she believes she is doing the right thing, shes going to do it.
In January, Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) was testifying on the stimulus bill but left the committee room and did not return after Foxx drew a comparison between his handling of the bill and his habit of fiddling with a pencil.
Foxx said she was unfazed by the rancor of the committee and pointed out she successfully got language inserted into a housing bill after its sponsor, Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), agreed that the provision was needed.
He didnt seem to mind the questions I asked, Foxx said in an interview with Roll Call.
She has also been an effective attack dog on the House floor. In March, Foxx caused freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) to become so flustered after an exchange about Kilroys vote on the American International Group Inc. bailout that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) soon held a parliamentary boot camp for Democratic freshmen to avoid future incidents.
But Foxxs straight-talk style has its downside.
While encouraging her willingness to be aggressive on the House floor, leaders at times have sought to quietly rein it in. For example, while waiting for a press conference after House Republicans unanimously rejected the Democratic stimulus bill earlier this year, Boehner turned to an exuberant Foxx and reminded her that there was no smiling in front of the cameras.
Foxxs most public gaffe came last week during debate over the hate crimes bill. One of the pieces of the bill is named for Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old man murdered in 1998 because of his sexual orientation. Foxx said naming the bill for Shepard was a hoax because his murder wasnt because he was gay.
It was outrageous, stupid, ignorant, inaccurate and vicious, said Frank, one of three openly gay House Members.
Foxx later apologized. In the heat of trying to handle the rule on the floor, anybody can use a bad choice of words. Saying that the event was a hoax was a poor choice of words, Foxx told a North Carolina TV station. Ive apologized for that. I never meant in any way to harm the family or offend the family, or anybody else for that matter.
Myrick, a longtime friend of Foxxs, said that she learned a hard lesson.
In politics when you do things off the cuff, thats what usually causes these kind of moments, Myrick said. I know Virginias heart, and I know Virginia did not mean to be cruel or hurtful to anybody.
She added, It was a mistake she made. She said that it was stupid and she realizes that.
One North Carolina political strategist said Foxxs work ethic was impressive at home and inside the Capitol, but that her inability to communicate the Republican message effectively could end up hurting the party.
I dont see how its been helpful, the strategist said. The party should do what it can to raise the profile of females and minorities, but a lot of the time the people we put out front may not be the most effective spokesmen.
Given her tenacious personality, its unlikely that Foxx will be going anywhere anytime soon.
In 2004, Foxx defeated seven men in the most expensive primary race in history to become the first woman to ever serve in her Congressional seat.
She said she learned the value of hard work growing up poor at a time when opportunities for women were few and far between.
I came up at a time when, particularly for women, I always felt that the only way for a woman to get ahead was to work harder then the men around her, Foxx said. And so I developed that early in life, and I just continue to do it.
I also have a real passion for what I do, Foxx said. I wish I could do more. My husband thinks Im nuts. I tell him all the time that I really resent sleeping, because I think about all the things I could be doing. Im constantly trying to do two things at one time to make the most use of my time.
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.