The act of listening is one of the safest, most clichéd strategies in Washington. Candidates embark on public relations-friendly “listening tours.” Committee members nod as experts testify. Congressional leaders sit through sessions with frustrated members, rope-a-doping their party’s most spirited lawmakers by responding to tirades with an open ear.
The strategy is exactly what Speaker John A. Boehner gave his conference Wednesday, telling Republicans to wait and see what the Senate delivers on the Department of Homeland Security funding bill before gathering their pitchforks. It’s difficult to say how all this listening actually affects the agenda, beyond being a nice box to be checked.
But for Rep. Tim Huelskamp, the new chairman of the largely dormant Tea Party Caucus, listening is the key to bringing the forgotten collective of conservatives back to relevancy.
“My wife will tell me I don’t listen enough as well,” Huelskamp told CQ Roll Call during a recent sit-down in his Longworth office.
Huelskamp said if Congress was working the way it should, if lawmakers were really listening to Americans, Congress would be more focused on spending and regulatory issues, on Common Core and the IRS targeting of tea party groups — “issues that get lost in the translation of Washington.”
Huelskamp took the reins of the Tea Party Caucus from Michele Bachmann, who oversaw the group’s rise from an energized collection of lawmakers brought in by the 2010 wave election to essentially a Web page on her erstwhile congressional site. The caucus was almost silent in the 113th Congress. Even the membership rolls were out of date.
But Huelskamp, an often combustible conservative who is among the most reviled Republicans in GOP leadership suites, is trying to bring the group back. And he sees listening as the key.
The Kansas Republican said he wants to provide an outlet for disaffected voters — the ones who “don’t think John [A.] Boehner’s listening,” the ones who “don’t want to give the PAC contribution” — and he wants to give members the opportunity to put their ear to ground, to hear the grass roots.
Right now, he seems to think members just aren’t getting the message.
Huelskamp told a story from the night before the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, just hours after GOP leaders decided to pull a bill that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, replacing it with a softer measure that would ban federal funds for abortions. One of Huelskamp’s conservative colleagues — he wouldn’t say who — asked him why the House was so bent on voting on an abortion bill on Jan. 22. On the eve of the March for Life. Huelskamp explained there were hundreds of thousands of people set to protest on the National Mall.
“And it’s like, ‘Oh, oh yeah,’” Huelskamp said. “It should not be an, ‘Oh yeah.’ It should be an, ‘Oh yeah, I knew that.’”
He sees value in getting lawmakers more involved with tea party groups, even though he acknowledges some members are likely to join the caucus simply to bolster conservative credentials. “Some might like that on their résumé,” he said. “I get that.”
There’s no public list of members of the Tea Party Caucus, but Huelskamp claims he has “dozens” of lawmakers ready to join. Pressed, he said the figure was between 24 and 36.
“We’re hopeful John Boehner will be a member. I mean, he was tea party before there was a Tea Party Caucus!” Huelskamp said with an incredulous chuckle, poking fun at one of Boehner’s pat lines.
The Kansas Republican can’t help but lob bombs, even when he’s trying to play nice. He has some of the highest scores from conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth. And in two consecutive speaker elections, he was one of seven Republicans to vote for someone other than Boehner.
Huelskamp — who grows facial hair like a mob boss and has a deep croak of a voice that belies his short-but-sturdy frame — has seemingly abandoned the traditional route for institutional power.
“The higher you get up [in Congress], the more time you spend across the street doing fundraisers where you talk to people who write checks out for $10,800 at a time,” — the legal limit for a contribution from a joint checking account — Huelskamp said. “Those are not your average ordinary Americans ... struggling to get by.”
After his first term in the 112th Congress, he was removed from the Budget and Agriculture committees for insubordination. But that didn’t deter him from speaking his mind in the 113th. In many ways, his status as a conservative martyr with nothing to lose only endeared him more to the far right. And Huelskamp, who sleeps in his office and pinches pennies by microwaving Hungry-Man frozen dinners, has certainly proven his willingness to take shots at GOP leaders — even if that means being on the outside.
Still, for all his bluster, Huelskamp is trying to get along — in his own way. He said he intends to sit down with Majority Whip Steve Scalise to see whether the Louisiana Republican wants to be part of the Tea Party Caucus. In fact, he said, every member is invited to participate.
A 46-year-old former state senator who holds a Ph.D. in political science, Huelskamp doesn’t see what’s so controversial about the tea party. He doesn’t understand why anyone would be ashamed to call himself or herself a “tea party Republican,” and he has no qualms about liberals dismissing the GOP using the term.
“That’s how we got a historical majority,” he said. “If you want to continue to pound on folks for being conservative or tea party, we win elections about that — even though you have Republicans running away from that.”
He sees the tea party as an organic expression of frustration that members ignore at their own peril. “I mean, people didn’t just wake up mad one day,” Huelskamp said. “They’ve been waking up mad every day and then they just realized that others were mad too.”
On the immigration battle that’s part of the DHS funding bill, Huelskamp said if Republicans give in, “I think we’re done for two years.” He said caving would send the message to the president that he’s free to implement any piece of his agenda. “This is the make or break for the next two years.”
His constituents tell him a GOP reversal on the DHS would be “the last straw.”
Huelskamp envisions the Tea Party Caucus meeting at least once a month to hear from different groups, and there may be more leaders to be announced. Huelskamp didn’t usurp the chairmanship of the group, but he wasn’t exactly elected either. Sources familiar with the Bachmann-to-Huelskamp handoff told CQ Roll Call that Huelskamp taking over was a long-scheduled plan that never quite happened.
Huelskamp eventually decided to take matters into his own hands.
While much of the focus on conservative groups has been on the nascent House Freedom Caucus, which Huelskamp is a member of, he sees the HFC as more of an inside-the-building group. He wants the Tea Party Caucus to have a different focus.
“I’ll be more than happy to be the outside-in guy,” he said.
So what’s success for his caucus?
“If we’re able to drag conservative issues on the agenda here, and conservative solutions,” he said. “Success is an agenda-setting function; it really is,” he continued. “Which is a boring thing to say.”
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