The consensus among Capitol Hill reporters these days is that Rep. Tom Cole is a member worth chasing down a hall.
There’s no telling what he might say. Just this year, he said certain factions in the House GOP were acting like drunk “Uncle Joe” ruining the family Christmas party, called the coup to unseat Speaker John A. Boehner “amateur night at the Bijou,” and said shutting down the government was the “political equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum.” But what makes Cole the must-have voice in any story about House Republicans is this: He brings the plainspoken, down-home Oklahoma truth.
“I’m a little bit old to not say what I think,” he told CQ Roll Call over the phone after the House adjourned for the year. “You only got so many years left — and I intend to make them count.”
The 64-year-old — whom Roll Call gave the “Oracle at Norman Award”— made this year count. His quirky quotes and willingness to speak honestly about his party’s shortcomings raised his national profile, and after Florida Republican C.W. Bill Young died in November, Cole was handed an Appropriations subcommittee gavel — a distinction that he said he began the year thinking, “Well, maybe in four years.”
While 2013 might have been a good to him, the Oklahoma Republican called it a “rough year” for Republicans.
“But the movement’s been broadly in the right direction,” he said.
In an extended sports metaphor, Cole said Republicans were like a team that had “lost a few games,” but one you could look at and think, “Well, maybe next season these guys can compete for the title.”
“It’s been a rough year,” Cole repeated, “but we ended it a lot stronger than we began it.”
Where Republicans began it, according to the six-term congressman, was in a fractured place. House Republicans came off the 2012 elections “a bit sour,” and started the year by swallowing the Senate’s deal on the fiscal cliff after Boehner’s infamous “plan B” fell apart and House Republicans decided they didn’t have the votes to amend what the Senate sent over.
Shortly following the fiscal cliff, where no one seemed to go home quite happy, there was the failed effort to unseat Boehner, which, despite falling apart, still sent a clear message rippling through the conference and up to the speaker: this is a divided conference.
When Republicans went on their February retreat to a golf resort in Williamsburg, Va., Cole said leadership really tried to unite Republicans. Particularly important in that effort was Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who spent the year “trying to move us from bitter confrontation to how we can make the others' life better.”
Cole floated a couple potential awards for leadership — and he didn’t go for brownie points.
He gave Boehner “The Comeback Kid” and Cantor “Most Improved.”
Cole noted that he thought Cantor was “pretty good before.”
“But I think strategically, he’s got better,” Cole said.
“You have to remember: All of these guys were learning their jobs. Our conference and our leadership had a rocky start but a really strong finish,” he said.
As for Boehner, Cole called him the “Archie Manning of politics; he’s a hell of a lot better than any team he’s playing on.” That’s high praise from a man who was born within three weeks of Manning, who amassed more than 2,000 completions, nearly 24,000 passing yards, and never once, in 13 years in the National Football League, played in a playoff game.
Cole said when you reflect on Boehner, you have to see someone who has "made Washington work." While Cole had heaps of praise for House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, he said Boehner’s role in getting a budget deal shouldn’t be forgotten.
“Look: no Boehner, no deal,” said Cole, who was a member of the budget conference. “It’s just that simple.”
Cole understands this was a small deal compared to the "grand bargain" fantasies many members had dancing in their heads — noting, in another extended sports metaphor, that Republicans ought to “accept the first down when we couldn’t get the touchdown” — but he emphasized that this deal takes the “political threat of a shutdown off the table.”
“John Boehner just gave the Senate Republicans the biggest Christmas present they ever had, because a budget means no shutdowns,” he said.
Cole was highly critical of the shutdown strategy. He said George Pickett, the Confederate major general who led an unsuccessful attack at Gettysburg, had a better chance of success than Republicans did of actually defunding Obamacare through the continuing resolution.
But once the speaker decided to go down that road, Cole supported him.
Many believe that Cole is an unofficial speaker for the speaker. Indeed, when Tom Cole is mentioned in the press, the words “close Boehner ally” usually follow.
Cole told CQ Roll Call earlier this year, however, that “there was a time when Boehner and I were considered oil and water.”
In 2007, Cole threatened to resign as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee after Boehner asked him to fire the committee's top two staffers.
Boehner quickly acquiesced, and they are now, once again, tight. But Cole rejects the notion that he’s any sort of surrogate for Boehner.
“I never pretend to speak for the speaker,” he said.
Still, Cole knows Boehner, and he offered an interesting perspective on the members who are often thorns in the speaker's side.
Cole said those members who are constantly standing up to Boehner remind him of the Ohio Republican. (Cole would "neither criticize nor flatter” any particular member by naming names.)
But even among those thorns in the side, Cole indicated that Boehner solidified his job this year with the conference, calling him the comeback kid — for what it's worth, Boehner is less than seven months younger than Cole — because “from where we started to where we ended, we have a speaker that is stronger.”
The shutdown may not have helped Republicans in the polls, but conservatives who demanded the defund-Obamacare-through-the-CR strategy seemed to appreciate Boehner’s willingness to listen.
For instance, on the same day the House voted to reopen the government, Idaho Republican Raúl R. Labrador, a reliable critic of GOP leadership, was praising Boehner more than ever.
“This is the kind of speaker that I have been looking for for the last 2 1/2 years,” Labrador said.
While the budget deal was perhaps Congress’ greatest legislative achievement this year, it split many House Republicans — 62 of them voted against the deal. Cole, nevertheless, seemed to think the deal was about as strong as Republicans were going to get.
If Republicans had a stronger hand to play, Cole said, the deal would have been farther to the right. It just wasn’t in the cards.
The budget deal now gives appropriators more money to play with — and the ability to get bills passed.
“We didn’t have the ability to pass bills across the floor at 967,” Cole said, referring to the overall sequester spending level, in billions, for fiscal 2014 discretionary accounts.
House Republicans, as part of that “rough year,” displayed that inability to pass appropriations bills on the floor repeatedly.
With the budget deal, Cole said Republicans finally had the ability to return to regular order, and Ryan had moved “from big thinker to dealmaker.”
“He’s got the ability to lead in the House,” Cole said. “He’s got a lot of options.”
How those options — the speakership? the White House? — play out remains to be seen. But Cole said a fitting superlative for Ryan this year would be “Most Likely to Succeed.”
The first stop for Ryan, in the 114th Congress, is probably at the top of the Ways and Means Committee.
As for the current chairman, Michigan Republican Dave Camp, Cole compared him and his effort to achieve tax reform to Moses and his 40 year struggle to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land — a place that Moses, according to the Bible, never got to himself.
Cole said he told Cantor that Dave-Camp-is-Moses anecdote recently, and Cantor said it was a Christianity reference that even he, a Jewish member of Congress, could understand.
As for what’s next for Cole, he seems content with his new status as an Appropriations cardinal and as the Republican who will tell it — to the press and his fellow House Republicans — like it is.
“Your friends are the ones who tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear,” he said.