Representative Tom Price of Georgia, one of the House’s leading conservatives, stopped by National Review’s Washington, D.C., office on Friday morning. For an hour, he spoke about the future of the Republican party, Karl Rove’s Conservative Victory Project, and pop star Taylor Swift.
“I’m a big Taylor Swift fan,” Price told reporters, when asked about his favorite musicians. “Don’t tell anybody,” he added with a chuckle.
Price’s pop-culture knowledge could be helpful if he runs for Senate next year, as many Republican insiders expect. On Capitol Hill, the physician from the Atlanta suburbs has long been known as a low-key policy wonk. But after a run for House leadership last year, he has become a conservative power broker.
It was Price, along with his close friend Paul Ryan, who helped craft the recent debt-limit compromise within the House GOP, which required the Senate to pass a budget or its members would lose their pay. He is also a frequent liaison between conservative backbenchers and the leadership, especially on health-care and tax issues.
As NR writers and a small group of outside journalists sipped cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, Price began the conversation by reflecting on President Obama’s State of the Union address, which he calls “the swan song of this administration, another grab at policies that have failed.”
Price says most House Republicans dismissed the speech, and in the GOP cloakroom, few members are hopeful that any sort of fiscal reform is possible. “The speech didn’t address the major challenges that we have, that is the economy, jobs, the debt, and spending,” he explains. “I think that the word debt was used twice in the speech.”
“But if you’re talking about compromise on some other potential items, the whole issue of immigration reform or restructuring is absolutely vital and necessary,” he says. “There may be something there. I think the next three to four months, as we move through the fiscal issues — the sequester, the continuing resolution, the budget, and the debt ceiling — will determine whether or not the water in the well is so poisoned that things can’t get done, or if there is a cooperative spirit.”
Price, as the vice chairman of the Budget Committee, says he’ll be part of the congressional discussions ahead of the upcoming fiscal debates, and predicts that conservatives will be able to influence Speaker John Boehner. He and Ryan, he says, have already convinced Boehner to promote a budget framework that would balance the federal books within a decade.
“The leadership has recognized that the conference is, by and large, a conservative conference,” Price says. “That kind of decision-making process that we have seen in the past may have been more efficient, but it was not constructive.” Since a dozen Republicans defected during January’s speaker vote, Price says, Boehner has gone out of his way to huddle with conservative members.
“Those were tough times,” Price says, recalling the tumultuous fiscal-cliff period, when Boehner’s power was threatened. “House Republicans and conservatives were between a rock and a hard place. I think coming out of that, going to the retreat, and having a really positive retreat” has improved relations.
Turning to sequestration (the upcoming automatic spending cuts set to hit the Pentagon and other government departments), Price says he’s not worried about replacing the cuts. “People are really concerned, but they understand,” he says. “I hear more from individuals back home asking, ‘Are Republicans going to cave?’”
Price won’t decide about a Senate run until May, since he wants to focus on his budget-committee work for the next few months. But as he mulls his options, it’s clear that he sees himself as both a conservative favorite and an electable Republican — the kind who won’t stumble under the spotlight.
Price says this gently, but his point is an important one as he looks to the Senate election in 2014. Paul Broun, another House Republican, has already entered the race, and Price faces the unusual prospect of having his conservatism challenged. As a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Price is considered one of the most right-leaning members of Congress, yet Broun is more of a firebrand.
Still, as incumbent Republican senator Saxby Chambliss prepares for retirement, Price’s allies are confident that he can unite the party behind him. They say his internal polling shows him ahead of the field, and point out that since Chambliss announced his plans, Price has raised more than $300,000.
Karl Rove’s Conservative Victory Project could also boost Price. The program, which is part of Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, is going to be spending money in Republican Senate primaries, looking to elevate electable conservatives over gaffe-prone candidates or contenders with troubled pasts.
Though the Conservative Victory Project hasn’t decided on where it will play, Price doesn’t mind the group’s objectives. “We have lost seats we should not have lost because of a failure of communication, a failure of message, and a failure of coherence within campaigns,” he says. “We can’t continue the same processes that we’ve had in the past and expect to increase our numbers.”
In Georgia and elsewhere, Price thinks the party should back conservatives with broad appeal. “I have some discomfort with all Republican primaries because they’re all family squabbles,” he says. “But we’ve got to be smarter about what we’re doing in order to get quality conservative candidates out of the other end of that chute.”
In the same vein, Price says tone matters, even if it’s not the critical factor in an election. When asked about Broun’s latest controversial remark about Obama, where he said the president upholds “Soviet” values, Price said Republicans have to do more to “temper” their messages so they’re “more receptive to the American ear.”
At the end of the talk, Price remained coy about his political future, but seemed very much like a man who is more than ready to run for the Senate, which he thinks is trending to the right. “It’s an exciting conference that’s building over there, and you can just sense it,” he says. “It would be really exciting to be involved with guys and gals who are fighting as hard as they can to save the country.” He sees GOP senators Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio, among others, as fellow travelers.
Price leaves it there, strongly hinting at his interest without committing. But after he left the building, the lingering reporters all agreed: This is a politician who is very serious about a bid — and surprisingly knowledgeable about pop culture and the darling of the Billboard charts.
When asked about Taylor Swift’s relationship with Conor Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Price playfully weighed in. “I prayed when she started dating a Kennedy that that would end,” he says, smiling.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.