AP: Conservative Kansas congressman riles GOP leaders

1/22/2013

COTTONWOOD FALLS (AP) — The town hall meeting inside the historic Chase County Courthouse should have been a homecoming for Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp, in friendly Republican territory, far away from his headline-making confrontations with leaders in his own party over the fiscal cliff and his opposition to House Speaker John Boehner.

COTTONWOOD FALLS (AP) — The town hall meeting inside the historic Chase County Courthouse should have been a homecoming for Kansas Congressman Tim Huelskamp, in friendly Republican territory, far away from his headline-making confrontations with leaders in his own party over the fiscal cliff and his opposition to House Speaker John Boehner.

Instead he got an earful from an audience member, who stood to challenge him on budget issues. The result was a combative back-and-forth about reducing the federal deficit and Huelskamp's refusal to brook any proposal to raise taxes. So much for a gathering that Huelskamp insisted is an example of "the best part of my job."

Such spats are becoming old hat for Huelskamp, who since his 2010 election to the U.S. House has become a congressional spokesman for the tea party, angering fellow Republicans along the way and raising questions about his effectiveness representing the state. He's undeterred, and he opened his event in Cottonwood Falls by showing off a blown-up copy of his House voting card.

"I don't care if you're speaker of the House or the president of the United States, it's not their voting card," he said. "I don't regret speaking for what I believe and what I've heard in 140 town halls in the last two years."

Huelskamp's high-profile tussle with Boehner and other GOP leaders has proven costly to him and his home state. They've stripped Huelskamp of a plum assignment on the House Budget Committee and what has been for decades Kansas' automatic seat on the Agriculture Committee. There's been speculation for months about whether a much-sought, $1.14 billion federal biosecurity lab planned near Kansas State University will have additional problems getting funded.

Huelskamp's conflicts fit snugly into the arc of the political career that's taken the western Kansas farmer and rancher to Washington. He'd scrapped regularly with less conservative governors and legislative leaders before he was elected to represent the sprawling, rural 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas, as far back as his first run for public office nearly two decades ago.

Some of his congressional constituents appreciate his bluntness and his harsh criticism of the deal that kept the federal government from going over the so-called "fiscal cliff." Some also want him to keep being a thorn in the side of Boehner and other GOP leaders.

But at least a few are like Tom Seigler, the carpenter and political independent from the tiny Chase County town of Elmdale who confronted Huelskamp at the town hall inside the courthouse in Cottonwood Falls. He came to challenge not only Huelskamp's conservative views but even the facts the congressman presented in a chart about the federal debt.

"He inspires a hell of a lot of frustration," Seigler said later.

Huelskamp shrugs off criticism, confident that he's voting as most of his constituents want. His district is safely Republican, and the state GOP has moved to the right over the past decade. He had no opposition in his bid last year for a second term in Congress.

He expects Boehner and the speaker's allies to find a primary challenger for him in 2014 but isn't worried. He raised nearly $1.25 million for his first competitive campaign for Congress, and his campaign fund still had $511,000 in cash on hand at the end of November.

"There's just the tendency — the itch — of folks in political power to just try to control everybody that's not in leadership," Huelskamp said in an interview with The Associated Press. "You want to take a few scalps, so you can hang them up to other folks."

The 44-year-old congressman grew up around Fowler, a small town in southwest Kansas, where he still has a farm and ranch. But he also has a doctorate in political science from American University in Washington and worked for a short time with the state budget division in New Mexico before returning to farming in the early 1990s.

He was only 27 when he decided to challenge a less conservative incumbent state senator in the GOP primary in 1996. She had the backing of then-Republican Gov. Bill Graves, but Huelskamp won 62 percent of the vote — after declaring publicly that Graves and other prominent moderates were "tearing the party apart."

He later paid Graves back by mockingly proposing a state "tax me more" fund when Graves sought tax increases to close a budget shortfall in 2002. That same year, he helped thwart political redistricting proposals favored by moderate Republicans, and early in 2003, after another public spat, Senate GOP leaders stripped him of his seat on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Even political allies haven't been immune. Former Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal, a conservative Hutchinson Republican who recently retired, endorsed Huelskamp in his 2010 race but described him publicly as "disgruntled" last year in another disagreement over political redistricting.

"Principle is important, but in a political, democratic process, at the end of the day, something has to get accomplished," said O'Neal, who is now CEO of the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce. "You can be irrelevant if you say there's not set of circumstances where you'll compromise."

In Washington, Huelskamp has earned a reputation as one of the House's most outspoken conservatives, one of only nine members in the 435-member U.S. House to have earned a 100 percent rating from the conservative Club for Growth for 2011.

Since then Huelskamp has only bolstered his reputation as an agitator. After he and three other GOP lawmakers lost their assignments, Huelskamp responded by voting against Boehner for another term as speaker. He gained additional notoriety when a Capitol newspaper, Politico, captured a photograph of him on the House floor reading an email on his iPad that appeared to detail an effort to corral the votes of fellow Republicans and prevent Boehner from winning another term as speaker.

Huelskamp contends he's being punished for being too conservative, though other House conservatives — including several with equally strong ratings from the Club for Growth — didn't lose major assignments. Huelskamp said GOP leaders couldn't realistically punish all of the lawmakers who've bucked Boehner, particularly on the fiscal cliff deal, and targeted a few to make a point.

He's even using the battles to seek donations.

"They will punish me," he wrote to supporters in an email seeking donations. "But America is too important to be lost to overspending, high taxes and big government."

Huelskamp acknowledged that his public profile and his fundraising may have played a role in the loss of his key committee assignments. He'll still serve on the Small Business and Veterans Affairs committees.

"Not only do they want you to vote a certain way, they want you to be silent about it," Huelskamp said.

The other members of Kansas' congressional delegation have said relatively little publicly about the disciplinary action against Huelskamp, except that the state's loss of a seat on the Agriculture Committee is unfortunate.

Back home, the give-them-hell strategy is causing discomfort for some. But others like Huelskamp's defiant streak.

Charlie Klamm, who owns a weaving business in Cottonwood Falls, told Huelskamp he likes the congressman's opposition to Boehner.

"I'm sorry you lost your job on the Ag Committee, but that tells me one thing. They're afraid of you," Klamm said. "Hang in there."

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