When Republican leadership in the House of Representatives yanked Tim Huelskamp off the Budget and Agriculture committees last year, some predicted a slow slide into irrelevancy for him.
Losing the agriculture seat was a particularly harsh blow: A member from Kansas had served on the committee for nearly 100 years, and farming is big business in Huelskamp’s largely rural district.
Now the 44-year-old congressman from Fowler — about 30 miles south of Dodge City — had lost the coveted spot for refusing to toe his party’s line.
But far from suffering a premature political demise, the tea party-backed Huelskamp used the episode to bolster his credentials as an uncompromising Washington outsider. Others like him have hit on a way to boost their own clout by bucking the party establishment from the right.
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“When Washington has a 9 percent approval rating,” Huelskamp said this month, “I'll be happy to stick on the side of the 91 percent.”
In fact, he said being targeted by Washington “insiders” had made him more prominent, not less.
In the months since his removal from the two committees, Huelskamp has emerged as a leader of a rebellious faction of fellow far-right conservatives who are unafraid, even eager, to defy their party’s positions on everything from the farm bill to the budget.
A small but vocal group, they’ve frustrated House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, by withholding key votes and publicly voicing dissent in monthly news conferences, on cable news shows and over social media.
“You can’t assume traditional political strategizing,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “These folks are true believers that it’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of how politicking is done, particularly how lawmaking is done. So they believe they are doing the Lord’s work in gumming up the works.
“They truly do believe that the government that works best works least.”
In January, Huelskamp and a group of colleagues even orchestrated a coup attempt against Boehner, falling just a few votes short of thwarting his re-election as speaker.
“As I told the speaker, ‘I don’t work for you, Mr. John Boehner. I work for 700,000 Kansans,’” Huelskamp said.
He’s marketed that renegade approach in fundraising pitches.
“If you are tired of Republicans who campaign as conservatives – but vote like Democrats – stand with me and make your contribution of $35 here,” he said in an e-mail sent out by TheTeaParty.net.
A beleaguered Boehner has said his strategy is to let the House “work its will” on immigration and other issues without resorting to strong-arm tactics to bring breakaway legislators such as Huelskamp into line.
That position may be more necessity than strategy. Republican leaders find it harder than ever to corral troublesome representatives such as Huelskamp by pulling them from plum committee assignments, stifling their bills or holding the threat of primary challengers over their heads.
“What can Boehner offer Huelskamp? Virtually nothing,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Boehner has a terrific problem that there are about 70 folks in the caucus (who) really aren’t interested in what he has to offer.”
The staunchly conservative makeup of Huelskamp’s district in western Kansas gives him room to maneuver without worrying too much about facing a challenge at the ballot box. Republicans hold a nearly 2-1 advantage over Democrats in the “Big First,” as it’s known, which sprawls from parts of eastern Kansas to the Colorado border.
Huelskamp has long had a reputation as a maverick. When he was a state senator in Kansas in 2003, fellow Republicans booted him from the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee for refusing to work with the leadership.
In 2010, Huelskamp won a six-way primary race for Congress by campaigning to the right. He assured voters that he was “not one of those weak-kneed Republicans.”
Since arriving in Washington, he has dedicated himself to living up to that billing.
He cast votes against raising the debt ceiling and the GOP budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. They didn’t slash spending fast enough.
Time and again he voted against the farm bill, legislation worth millions to his district. Mainly, he wanted deeper cuts to food stamps. But he also opposes enhancing crop insurance subsidies, which go to farmers.
Huelskamp ran unopposed for re-election in 2012.
“My people at home, they said, ‘We sent you up there with some principles,’” Huelskamp said. “What they get tired of is folks who said they believe in something but they don’t follow through.”
To Huelskamp, staying true to those principles sometimes means championing seemingly hopeless causes, such as a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, an always unlikely proposition that’s now running counter to a dramatic shift in public opinion. He also wants to defund the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, even if it means triggering a government shutdown.
Huelskamp says he doesn’t need to serve on a committee or curry favor with leadership to shift the debate in Congress.
In July, he and five other members sent a letter to the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, threatening to join Democrats in opposing a procedural vote to allow a defense appropriations bill to come to the floor. Their chief cause: pressing for a vote on an amendment proposed by Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., that would have severely limited the amount of data that the National Security Agency could collect from American citizens.
GOP leaders had removed Amash from the House Budget Committee at the same time as Huelskamp, and they didn’t seem inclined to give his amendment a floor vote.
Huelskamp described the threat tactic as “a cardinal sin for Republicans,” but he said it had made a difference: Amash’s amendment did get a vote, although it failed 205-217.
“Justin and I get kicked off committees and at the end of the day we forced them to come to a vote, forced the president to come in and lobby against it, Pelosi to lobby against it, Boehner to lobby against it,” Huelskamp said, speaking of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “And we still almost passed it.”
Huelskamp is home in the Sunflower State now, preparing to meet with constituents at a series of town halls during a monthlong congressional recess. He said many had expressed outrage over his removal from the Agriculture Committee but most didn’t blame him – they blamed the powers that be in Washington.
He told McClatchy that during last month’s farm bill debate, he turned down an offer to restore his seat on the Agriculture Committee in return for his vote.
That “might be the way the game’s played up here,” Huelskamp said, “but that outrages people at home.”
His refusal to compromise exposes a widening rift between moderate and ultraconservative Republicans in Kansas, said Dena Sattler, the editor and publisher of the Garden City Telegram, a newspaper published in Huelskamp’s district.
“Some really respect the fact that he’s standing his ground, and he’s standing for what he thinks is right,” Sattler said.
“On the other hand, you have those who really don’t understand why he can’t sit down with folks he doesn’t agree with to get things done.”