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As a two-term chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions has never been known for reaching across the aisle.
In the year since relinquishing that gig and taking the gavel of the Rules Committee, the Texas Republican is still focused on politics and elections — and scoring points for the GOP.
And right now, he’s got one target in his sights.
“Everything we do in this body should be about messaging to win back the Senate,” he said. “That’s it. If you don’t want Benghazis to happen or you want an investigation for Benghazi, if you want an investigation on the IRS as opposed to the excuses that [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid is all about, if you do not like what’s happening at the [National Security Agency], then you gain the Senate.”
Sessions knows that he’s a target himself. He understands that “every room I walk into, and every elevator I go into, there are people there that know who ramrodded the effort to replace Nancy Pelosi” as speaker, he said. “I get that.”
But Sessions doesn’t want to be known as just a partisan attack dog. He says he’s trying to be more welcoming to the other party and opposing views.
“A lot of people believed I would come in and probably ramrod things through the committee,” Sessions said in an interview with CQ Roll Call last week. “But, in fact, even at the NRCC, I tried to involve as many members as I could. It was not a one-man project.”
He points to his style at Rules Committee meetings as an example, which are longer and less expedient than those of his predecessor, former Rep. David Dreier of California.
“I am more open to us allowing members of Congress to come to the Rules Committee where they will be welcomed, where their ideas will be thought of and understood,” he said.
Allowing amendments can be a tricky business. More amendments and more openness can lead to bills going down in flames on the House floor. Witness the farm bill.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Sessions said.
He is at his warmest when averring to his love for the Boy Scouts of America and proudest when discussing his two Eagle Scout sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Sessions is also co-chairman of the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus.
But behind that congeniality and family pride, Sessions maintains a sharp edge.
“Between being a Scout master and working with young kids and being a father of a disabled child, I got patience,” Sessions said. “But not for bullshit. You come up here and you’re a professional and you have ideas, I’m ready to look at that. You come up here, you want to run the committee or shake us up or come at us, I don’t allow that.”
In the 113th Congress, Sessions has allowed 216 Democrat-sponsored amendments for debate on the floor, 92 bipartisan amendments and 237 Republican amendments. The statistics might back up Sessions’ insistence that the die is not completely cast before a Rules hearing; debate “really does matter” in deciding which amendments to accept, he said.
But his job is to implement leadership’s vision, even if he isn’t always wild about the strategy. That was particularly true during the government shutdown in October.
“I am for us effectively knowing where victory is and what’s possible,” he said. “I think we should not take a hostage just to take a hostage.”
Once leadership decided to go down the shutdown road, however, the party loyalist was all in. It meant he had to take a pummeling from Democrats over the GOP’s manipulation of the rules to prevent a vote on a “clean” continuing resolution and he had to be the bearer of bad news.
The night before a deal was reached to reopen government, leadership huddled in the speaker’s office to consider one last offer to the Senate.
But they didn’t have the votes, and when the meeting ended, all but one opted to exit through the back door, rather than face the waiting throng of reporters. Sessions came out the front door.
“They all have different roles,” he said of his colleagues, but for him, “walking out the back door is not appropriate.”
He said the Republican additions to this year’s roster — senior appropriator Tom Cole of Oklahoma, former Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and the always-opinionated Michael C. Burgess of Texas — were about assembling a “fantasy team” of “real experts.”
Cole called Sessions “the ultimate traffic cop in Congress” who has made the panel “more deliberative, not just a process committee, but a substance committee.”
And though Sessions was a student of Dreier’s — “I don’t think anyone respects David Dreier as much as Pete Sessions does,” Cole said — the Oklahoma Republican speculated that Sessions wanted to “mitigate those frustrations” he saw when he was in the minority, even if, “by nature, the outcome is pretty much dictated.”
“There is an overwhelming courtesy in the way that Pete has gone about his business,” Cole said.
The top Democrat on Rules, former Chairwoman Louise M. Slaughter of New York, called Sessions “a cordial colleague” in spite of “our many differences on the issues,” in a statement.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, another senior Democrat on the panel, said Sessions has “gone out of his way to be accommodating” and “make sure those of us in the minority party get a chance to be heard.”
“The problem isn’t with him, it’s with leadership,” McGovern added. “The Rules Committee is the speaker’s committee,” and Sessions is “a loyal soldier to the speaker of the House.”
Sessions, known among friends for his “Pete-isms” and eccentric sense of humor, also makes sure members of his staff get to voice their concerns. Each week, he sits down with his top advisers for what the chairman calls “Eagle Time,” an allusion to his revered Eagle Scout rank.
“Code name: Pete’s the Eagle,” Sessions joked, speaking as though he were one of his aides being dragged into a meeting. “‘Oh shit, you got Eagle Time today, you got to spend time with the Eagle Scout.’”
He paused briefly, as if thinking something through.
“I think everybody likes to be in the meeting,” Sessions concluded.