Between Meetings, a Search for Balance

Posted July 29, 2003 at 6:09pm

Late last week, as the House ground haltingly toward the pre-recess finish line, Rep. Sue Myrick had her hands full.

As chairwoman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, the North Carolina lawmaker had to keep a close eye on the appropriations process. As a Deputy Majority Whip, she needed to stay in constant contact with GOP leaders as they monitored controversial issues and close votes. In between those commitments, she had to squeeze in daily Rules Committee meetings, though at least those were scheduled at civilized hours.

Now is the time that the 61-year-old lawmaker takes to heart the lessons she learned from her bout with breast cancer.

“You try to bring more balance into your life,” Myrick explained Thursday during an interview in a clamorous, crowded hallway off the House floor.

“This is a job where most of us are workaholics or we wouldn’t be here, so it’s hard to keep balance and you’ve got to make yourself take time off. You’ve got to make yourself spend time with your family. Put these things on your calendar, because otherwise the pressure’s always there from everybody to do other things constantly. You can never get all the work done in your job. It’s just impossible.”

Not that Myrick had much time for her family last week. As RSC chairwoman, she needs to keep regular tabs on the group’s 90-plus members, even when they don’t agree. For instance, the drug re-importation bill, which passed the House early Friday morning, divided Study Committee members along several different lines.

“People within the group have a lot of different ideas on the same issues,” Myrick said. “What I try to do is let the group formulate what we’re going to do. I don’t heavy-handedly say, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and expect everyone to follow. … It’s a real delicate balance in providing leadership and yet making sure that everyone has a voice.”

Other RSC members echo her self-assessment.

“She’s not a person who tries to tell everybody what to do,” said Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.), a founding member of the RSC. “She sets the agenda and lets everyone speak their mind.”

Even if the group can reach a consensus on an issue, Myrick might then have to contend with informing Republican leaders that RSC members plan to buck the party line.

“It’s a tough job,” said Rep. John Shadegg (Ariz.), who preceded Myrick as RSC chairman. “You’re leading a group that has strong feelings and is by definition sometimes opposed to leadership.”

Republican leaders rely on Myrick to take the pulse of the Conference’s conservatives, and she uses whatever influence she can to try to steer the debate their way.

“We try to be proactive with [the leadership],” Myrick said. “Our stance — and John Shadegg started it and I follow the same program — is that we go to leadership ahead of time. We sit down and talk to them and really try and let them know where we’re coming from. … Instead of standing outside and throwing stones and just complaining about something, we try to be an active player.”

The RSC’s most notable early lobbying this Congress came on the budget resolution — which most House conservatives viewed as imperfect but probably the best they could hope for — and on the appropriations process. The group successfully pushed for the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill to be scheduled early, and Myrick said she feels the process has gone “OK” so far.

“I think we’ve done much better this year,” she said.

The process could go even better, in Myrick’s view, if the White House would take a tougher line on spending by vetoing or threatening to veto expensive legislative items.

“I wish they’d do that more often because it tends to get people in line, quite frankly, but you know I don’t tell [the administration] what to do,” Myrick said, adding that the White House does a good job keeping in touch with House conservatives.

“The lines of communication with the administration are very good,” she said. “They just have other pressures besides us to deal with, I guess.”

Myrick gets an early look at legislation — expensive or otherwise — on the Rules Committee, where she handles all defense-related issues, most social values-related legislation and some health rules.

“The Rules Committee has been a real learning experience for me because I didn’t know anything about procedure when I went on,” she said.

Of course, Myrick’s enthusiasm for the Rules Committee has its limits, as becomes clear when she’s asked if she enjoys it when the panel meets in the wee hours.

“Enjoy the late-night votes?” she said with a laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

While her resume shows plenty of success — small-business owner, Charlotte mayor and five-term House Member — Myrick has had her share of defeats.

She lost a race for the Charlotte City Council in 1981 before a successful run two years later. The pattern repeated itself in 1985, when she lost a mayoral campaign but won on her second try in 1987. Myrick then ran for the Senate in 1992 but lost the GOP primary to then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth before winning election to the House in 1994.

On the Hill, Myrick failed in a bid to be GOP Conference secretary in 1997 and then lost a Conference vice chairwoman race in the next Congress.

Despite those setbacks, there are some Conference conservatives who would like to see her make another bid for elected leadership.

Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who said Myrick is a “constant counselor” to him on spending issues, would happily back Myrick in some future leadership race.

“I say that publicly and I’ve said it to her privately,” Nussle said.

But Myrick avers that she has “no desire” to mount such a campaign, nor is she (currently) interested in another bid for statewide office.

“I’m not running for Senate. I’m not running for governor. I’m not running for anything,” Myrick said. “I learned a long time ago that you never say never, but I have no plans to do that. I’m perfectly content where I am.”

For what it’s worth, Myrick has no White House aspirations, either. “To me, president and vice president are the worst jobs in the world,” she said.

Though she’s not gunning for higher office, Myrick does have her political side. She chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee’s executive committee, a group of lawmakers that does not participate in the campaign arm’s day-to-day operations but does have some input on bigger decisions.

Lessons gleaned from her bout with cancer have helped Myrick juggle all of these competing roles, and sometimes she can share her hard-earned perspective with others.

Last week, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) announced that he had been diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer — he underwent successful surgery on Monday — and Myrick tried to pass on what she had learned.

“I have encouraged him to take some time off because he needs to rest,” Myrick said. “You know, in this business people don’t like to be down, so their tendency is to get up and move quickly and he just needs to take the time to heal. You know, your mind can tell you ‘you can do something.’ … I’ve learned from personal experience that when your body tells you ‘you can’t’ you need to listen to your body.

“You have to learn that your life is not just about this place, yet it’s a responsibility I take very seriously to represent my people. But very frankly, I have another life, too, and that’s my family. I’ve got 15 grandkids.”