Rep. Tom Cole, the unofficial spokesman of the GOP rank and file in the House, has never been shy about telling the truth — at least the truth as the Oklahoma Republican sees it — with anyone who'll listen.
Continuing a tradition that began last year , Cole got on the phone recently with CQ Roll Call for more than an hour to review the ups and downs of 2014 (something he also did in a recent column ). Like last year, the 65-year-old former history professor thinks Republicans — and especially Speaker John A. Boehner — enter the new year with momentum. “The Boehner coalition is the largest coalition in the conference, and it’s not even close," Cole said, dismissing ongoing anti-Boehner grumblings among some of the conference's most conservative Republicans.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., recently said there were roughly 16 to 18 Republicans planning to vote against Boehner for speaker when the 114th Congress convenes in January. While that's nearly enough Republicans to throw the contest to a second ballot, Cole said the number of Republicans who would only vote Boehner for speaker was "higher than 130," meaning he believes there is no other Republican who could feasibly take the gavel.
Boehner was vindicated by the government shutdown and the November election results, Cole said.
But Cole, who begins his seventh term in the 114th, also thinks Boehner was "strengthened" by former Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing his primary. There's now no "logical alternative" to the Ohio Republican.
While Cole said he didn't want "apply anything critical" to Cantor — "I think he was pretty selfless" — the Oklahoma Republican thought that, in Cantor, "you had a ready-made backup, you had a guy who could clearly step in."
With Cantor gone, members seem satisfied with the new leadership team of Boehner, California's Kevin McCarthy at majority leader, Louisiana's Steve Scalise at majority whip, and Washington's Cathy McMorris Rodgers at GOP Conference chair. "I feel pretty good about our top four," Cole said. "There’s clearly less tension.”
Cole acknowledged there was "no question" that there are some who remain unhappy with Boehner, but he called the anti-Boehner crowd a "very small gathering."
"I don’t think it’s any threat to denying him the speakership," he said.
Instead, he had stern words for those planning to register that discontent in the form of a protest vote during the speaker election. "You’re not attacking John Boehner; you’re attacking the Republican Conference," Cole said, adding that it was "a great way to marginalize yourself."
“You’re just embarrassing yourself in my view," Cole continued, "and undermining the unity of the conference.”
Cole called Cantor's primary loss to Dave Brat a "profound moment" and "the most single unexpected, shocking political moment of the year."
Brat ran to the right of Cantor on issues like immigration, but Cole said that doesn't mean an immigration overhaul is out of the question in 2015.
"If we don’t put a border security bill on the president’s desk in this year, I’ll be amazed and disappointed," Cole said.
He added that there were things Republicans and Democrats generally agree on, like seasonal labor visas, that Congress could move "piecemeal." It's just a question, he said, of whether President Barack Obama, who has promised to implement his own sweeping executive action that would defer deprtations for millions of immigrants, will accept a step-by-step approach from Congress.
"He’s got to decide if he’s willing to take half a loaf, or if he’s going to try to shove the whole loaf down our throats," Cole said.
The president has long maintained that he would take the piece-by-piece approach. Up to this point, it has been House Republicans who have had difficulty coalescing behind any portion of the immigration issue. But they will have a chance soon. As Cole noted, Congress has to deal with the president's immigration action and Department of Homeland Security funding when they get back; DHS funding runs out Feb. 28.
Cole did see some positive signs, with House Republicans passing a border supplemental bill before leaving for the August recess — something he said was a major 2014 accomplishment, particularly when you consider that lawmakers, while dealing with the influx of children crossing the U.S. border, also passed "the largest reform of the VA system in a generation" and provided emergency money for Israel to fund their Iron Dome missile defense system.
"Congress has gotten a little better," he said.
Cole saw the year-end "cromnibus" deal as the crowning achievement in 2014. He said it was "pretty unusual" to see the White House and the speaker "cooperating" to pass such a sweeping spending bill, and he thought it portended well for 2015.
Cole himself had a pretty good year. He's shot up through the ranks on the Appropriations Committee, and will serve as the Labor-Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee chairman in the 114th, this after becoming an Appropriations cardinal just late last year.
Cole, who was chairman of Legislative Branch Appropriations, explained that his office thought he might have a choice to be chairman among four subcommittees. “Let’s just say Labor-H" — as it's often called among those in the appropriations know — "wasn’t the preferred path of choice.”
Labor-HHS is notoriously the most controversial subcommittee, and it's one of the most difficult bills to get on the floor, with members looking to avoid tough votes on issues like abortion riders.
But when Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., came to Cole late this year to discuss subcommittee assignments, Rogers asked Cole to take Labor-HHS. "I said, 'I thought I had a choice,'" Cole recounted. And when Rogers said he did have a choice, Cole replied, “Well, in that case, my choice is to do what my chairman wants." Which resulted in a "big grin" from Rogers.
Cole's realistic about getting the Labor-HHS bill to the floor next year — “I don’t know, I think it is a difficult and complex bill" — and he's first concentrated on getting the measure to through the full committee. "We haven't done that in four years," Cole noted.
He said his plan was to try to create opportunities for moments of bipartisanship, whether it be working on a bipartisan issue like Native American affairs (Cole's a member of the Chickasaw Nation himself) or by taking some time with fellow members to enjoy a cigar. (At one point in the conversation, Cole evidenced Rep. David Joyce's worth by noting that, "He smokes cigars, so he's a great guy.")
But Cole is realistic about what Congress can accomplish, even with Republicans controlling the Senate. In one of his extended sports metaphors — in which he also worked in conservative Republicans who are discontent with Boehner — Cole said every player had a role to play for the team's success.
“Sometimes it’s better to be the left guard than the quarterback, no matter how much you want to be the quarterback," he said, noting that, over the course of his own football career, there were "plenty of times I held the dummy.”
It's that team attitude that has endeared Cole with many in leadership, despite some past conflicts with Boehner. But, even though many reporters pretend Cole is a sanctioned spokesman for Boehner, Cole made it clear that he speaks just for himself, never for the speaker.
“Every time I hear that, I think that’s somebody who hasn’t been here very long," Cole said.
Related: 2013, According to Tom Cole After Hours of Uncertainty, House Passes 'Cromnibus' New Republicans Will Strengthen Boehner’s Hand in 114th GOP to Bring Up Bill Blocking Obama Immigration Action — Next Year The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.