When the House took up offshore oil drilling legislation earlier this month, Republicans knew two things — the essentially symbolic bill would pass on a party-line vote, and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. wasn't going to fall in line with his GOP colleagues.
Not that they needed him, of course, since the bill passed 243-179. But even if Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) had suddenly found himself short a vote, he would have likely gone to Democrats before approaching Jones.
In fact, since the North Carolina lawmaker publicly came out against the Iraq war — and accused elements of the Bush administration of attempting to deceive Congress — "nobody really ever whips Jones," a senior GOP leadership aide acknowledged.
While it's easy to cast him as simply another member of the "problem caucus," Jones, 68, in many ways defies the stereotype. Unlike Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) or Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the soft-spoken Jones has never sought to translate his differences with leadership into a national profile. He's never claimed the mantle of "maverick" like fellow contrarian Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) nor is he consistently a public thorn in leadership's side like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).
"Sometimes my party is how I vote. Sometimes it's not," Jones said. For instance, he consistently backs anti-abortion measures and other conservative initiatives, even as he voted against Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget because of its effects on Medicare.
Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), one of Jones' closest friends in the House, said Jones' positions have nothing to do with political ambition.
"I think that's just his nature. He marches to his own drummer," said Coble, who served with Jones in the state Legislature and knew Jones' father when he served in Congress.
Noting that "he's been re-elected convincingly," Coble said Jones' support within the district comes despite significant life decisions that don't look politically smart.
"He's a former Southern Baptist, now a Catholic. He's a former Democrat, now a Republican. I once told him, 'You're the most versatile Member in Congress.'
"He obviously didn't do it for political gain. There aren't a lot of Catholics in his district. And to become a Republican when his father was a lifelong Democrat" demonstrates personal conviction rather than political triangulation, Coble said.
Jones calls his journey from rank-and-file Republican to an independent voice inside the traditionally disciplined GOP caucus an "evolution to the truth" that began with his vote to authorize the Iraq War in October 2002.
"When I walked to the floor, I was not convinced that Saddam [Hussein] was responsible for 9/11. That's what the administration was selling, that he was responsible. I walked to the floor, and in my heart I was not convinced, and in my heart I felt like I should not vote to give President Bush the authority," Jones said. "But my concern on the other hand was that there was so much retired military in the district that did believe what they were selling [and] I didn't have the courage of my convictions," Jones admitted.
For a while after that vote, Jones continued to play the good GOP soldier for the Bush administration. For several years he remained a reliable supporter of the war effort — going so far as to join with then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) in 2003 to force the House's food service company to rename French fries "freedom fries" to protest France's opposition to the war.
Privately, however, Jones' resolve was crumbling. The final breakthrough came during a funeral for a soldier who had died in Iraq.
"Seeing the pain of war ... was really a conversion for me," Jones said. Soon after, he began meeting with former generals and critics of the war. The evidence, Jones said, was compelling. Elements of the Bush administration "had manipulated the intelligence" to paint a false picture of Iraq's involvement in terrorism.
Jones had made a mistake, a realization he said devastated him.
"I felt like I had let God down because I am a pro-life Member of Congress. Well, is that 18-, 19- or 20-year-old kid, is he or she a gift from God? Absolutely."
So, in 2005 Jones joined with anti-war lawmakers, including Kucinich, former Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), in calling for an end to the war, a decision that would forever change his life and career in Congress.
Conservative commentators attacked him, while Republicans back home began organizing to oust him.
By 2007, Jones — who was up for a subcommittee ranking membership slot — was officially on the outs. Former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr. (R-Calif.), then the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, met with Jones and told him he would not get his ranking membership on the committee "because I know you will vote with the Democrats when it comes to Iraq," Jones recalled.
Initially he was disappointed, but Jones felt liberated.
"I'll put it this way, there's a price to pay for anyone ... for doing what you think is right," he said. "And I am at peace with that."
Jones said his opposition to the war has given him the political will to buck leadership on other issues while freeing him up to work on issues he cares about.
For instance, on a recent Tuesday, while other members of the GOP class of 1994 were chairing subcommittee meetings, participating in Whip team gatherings or dialing for dollars to help other lawmakers, Jones spent the day with seniors and new graduates from the War College. Jones has been able to focus on a handful of military issues, such as a movement to have a formal memorial for military service dogs erected at Marine Corps Base Quantico, an investigation into the Pentagon's policies for shipping soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder back into the field and his years-long effort to clear the names of two pilots who were involved in a deadly crash of a V-22.
And while those issues may not be high-profile, Jones says they are important to him and his constituents.
"If I was chairman or at least subcommittee chairman ... I probably wouldn't have time to do some of these things I'm doing. And to me I think they're important too. I think they're important to my district, and they are important to me personally," he said.
While leadership may have hoped that isolating Jones would deter others in the party from following his path on Iraq, Jones' survival may win over converts.
"He convinced me it's the way," said Coble, who had long criticized the Bush administration for lacking an exit strategy from Iraq.
Now, Coble is one of a small but growing number of elected Republicans who have converted to the anti-war camp on Afghanistan.
"I voted with Walter on the last three or four 'bring them home' bills," Coble said. "When I voted to dispatch troops to Iraq, I wish I had that vote back."
So far, seven Republicans have joined Jones in his effort to bring the war to an end, and he is working to sign up five more colleagues. He acknowledges it is slow going but insists he will continue to quietly work to convert more Republicans.
"After we get those five, we'll try to get five more. And I think truthfully that the American people will continue to say to President [Barack] Obama, as well as the Democrats and Republicans, that it's time to bring them home," he said.