Republican Cole, one of Boehner’s most vocal supporters, seeks the political center.
Rep. Tom Cole has firmly staked out a position as a foil to conservative hard-liners in the GOP conference, using the media’s megaphone to push back against Republicans who want to hold a firmer line in spending battles with President Barack Obama.
The Oklahoma Republican, who worked as a political consultant before his election to Congress in 2003, argues he is no liberal — saying his disagreements are strategic, not ideological.
His close friendships with many GOP lawmakers give him wider latitude to speak his mind in public.
“I love the man. Tom Cole is a thoughtful, brilliant, committed American statesman. And he has a right to be wrong once in a while just like anybody else,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
Still, Cole’s recent moves have earned him some enmity on the right, with one GOP lawmaker privately calling him a “joke,” and his closeness to GOP leadership has prompted questions about whether Cole is speaking as a conduit on behalf of Ohio’s Boehner.
“As House GOP leaders push for unity on all fronts, moderates within the party appear exempt. Rarely are they called to the carpet for creating fissures within the party or initiating a circular firing squad,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative outside group.
“I don’t speak for him,” Cole said of Boehner. “We certainly don’t coordinate things. If I was that close, he probably wouldn’t have been chastising me during the fiscal cliff,” when Cole urged Republicans to give in to Obama’s demand for tax increases.
The idea of Cole as Boehner’s surrogate would have been laughable only a few years ago, when the two tussled over Cole’s stewardship of the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2007, Cole threatened to resign when Boehner demanded he fire the top two staffers at the campaign committee, a move that forced the speaker to back off.
“It’s ironic — it shows how new some of these people are. There was a time when Boehner and I were considered oil and water,” Cole said.
While leadership sources confirm Cole’s recent public comments are entirely his own, the lawmaker has since worked to gain Boehner’s trust and is known by GOP lawmakers as one of Boehner’s most vocal supporters in closed-door meetings.
Cole said he’s fighting “political immaturity” from some members of the right wing of the conference.