Ambition Draws Admirers, Skeptics to GOP’s Wamp

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:17pm

On the evening of Monday, Jan. 3, a throng of reporters huddled in the hallway behind the House chamber waiting for confirmation that the Republican Conference had indeed reversed a rule change that would have allowed indicted members of the party leadership to remain in their posts.

As GOP aides began spreading the word that the deed was done, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) strode off the House floor straight to the waiting television cameras — the first Member to make it to the microphones.

“I feel like we have all taken a shower, and now we can all go to war,” Wamp told reporters.

The scene, which played out after Wamp had loudly criticized his Conference for reversing the rule in the first place, neatly encapsulated the traits ascribed to the Tennessean by both his admirers and his detractors.

To his supporters, Wamp is the rare lawmaker who is unafraid to speak his mind, who will eloquently argue a principled position regardless of whether it echoes the party line or angers some fellow Republicans.

“He’s one of my favorites,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). “He’s one of the brightest, most articulate Members we have.”

To his critics, including some in the GOP leadership, Wamp has delusions of grandeur and is too eager to criticize his own party, particularly when the cameras are rolling.

“He’s kind of a wild card,” said a GOP Member who has worked with Wamp on the Appropriations Committee. “He swims upstream on some issues, sometimes for the right reasons, but sometimes people think he’s just doing it for the attention.”

Wamp is aware of both caricatures and, not surprisingly, he prefers the former.

“There are times I think our Conference needs somebody to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute!’” he said in a recent interview. “That’s a role I can play.”

To charges that he craves media attention, Wamp said, “I’m not looking for a camera or a reporter. I’m just looking to stand my ground.”

Toward the end of the 108th Congress, Wamp made three moves that caught the attention of his colleagues: He ruled out a 2006 Senate run, questioned whether House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) could survive his current ethical troubles and suggested that he had leadership aspirations of his own.

After DeLay was admonished by the ethics committee in October, Wamp told The Associated Press that DeLay “has the confidence of the Republican Conference. But if it got worse, it may change.”

Wamp also said, “There’s an evaluation under way … as to whether now is the time for new leadership.”

Those comments were definitely noted by members of the current leadership, but Wamp hopes that “new leadership” could eventually include himself. And while some Members try to rise through the Whip organization and others seek to make their names at the National Republican Congressional Committee, Wamp said he hopes to blaze his own trail.

“I don’t want to run over anybody to get where I’m going,” Wamp said. “I look forward to when you can get into leadership without running over anybody [and] without building a power base centered on money.”

Wamp cited the case of Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), the chairman of the Republican leadership, as evidence that lawmakers can rise to prominence in unconventional ways.

“I think he rose to power because he knows a lot about a few things and articulates them well,” Wamp said. “The Portman model is one I would follow.”

Of course, Portman was never elected to the leadership; he was appointed to his position by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), with whom he has an extremely close relationship. And Portman, who will soon leave the House to become U.S. trade representative, has also followed a traditional fundraising path, using his leadership political action committee to give GOP candidates nearly $900,000 over the past two cycles.

Wamp, meanwhile, has no fundraising vehicle other than his re-election committee. “I don’t think you have to have a leadership PAC to get into leadership,” he said.

Several Republican lawmakers said privately that they did not see Wamp as a realistic leadership candidate, arguing that he has not endeared himself to enough colleagues.

But Wamp also has his admirers.

“Zach is not afraid to stand up and be in a bipartisan mode,” said Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who has supported Wamp since his first House race in 1992. “He speaks calmly and passionately about the things he believes.”

Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), who has gotten to know Wamp during prayer breakfasts and in the House gym, said Wamp “is first of all a very positive guy. You never hear Zach talk badly about anybody and that wears well here.”

Wamp’s primary platform at this point is his seat on the Appropriations Committee. The panel’s leadership and structure were revamped earlier this year, both in ways that reduced Wamp’s clout.

First, Wamp’s closest ally on the spending committee, Rogers, lost the chairmanship race to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.).

Then Lewis pushed through a plan to reduce the panel’s number of subcommittees from 13 to 10, in the process slowing Wamp’s rise to a position of prominence. Whereas before the change, Wamp was fourth in line on the seniority list to take over a subcommittee chairmanship, now he has six lawmakers ahead of him before he can take a gavel.

Despite those setbacks, Wamp still occupies some useful positions. Rogers specifically requested that Wamp be given a seat on the Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, which the Kentuckian chairs, and Wamp also serves on the Interior panel.

“My seniority and ability on Appropriations is on par with being a freshman Senator,” Wamp said.

Wamp surprised many Tennessee political observers when he decided not to run for the seat that will be vacated by retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R) in 2006.

While some operatives in the state speculate that the lawmaker withdrew his name because Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker (R) had already begun stealing support in Wamp’s hometown, Wamp said the decision was chiefly due to family concerns.

Wamp said the deciding moment came when his 16-year-old daughter asked him not to be away from home more than he already was.

Frist is retiring because he vowed to serve only two terms, and Wamp made a similar 12-year pledge when he was elected in 1994. Now he plans to break that pledge, though he does not appear worried about any potential political consequences.

“To me, term limits were a fad and not a trend,” Wamp said.

Asked why he made a term-limit pledge if it really was just a fad, Wamp said, “Because everybody basically was. … Bottom line, it was a mistake.”

Wamp quickly emerged as one of the most provocative lawmakers in a freshman class full of bomb-throwers.

“It was very appealing to the flesh,” Wamp said of the media attention Republicans received during those first years in the majority, explaining that he has attempted to keep a lower profile since those early days.

Just as Wamp has changed on a personal level — he has talked openly about his past cocaine addiction — he has also worked to smooth the edges in his professional life.

“He’s matured a lot,” Rogers said. “He’s grown and he’s a good learner.”

Wamp hopes the Republican Conference has undergone a similar transformation, in the process opening a slot for him at the leadership table.

“I think as the majority matures there’s going to be more room for independence,” he said.