Should a debt deal go sour, the buzz is that Tom Price, a 58-year-old physician from Georgia, may challenge John Boehner for the speaker’s gavel.
“Price is the person we’re all watching,” says an aide close to House leadership. “We know he’s frustrated, but we don’t know much else.”
In an interview with National Review Online, Price won’t speculate about his future, but he acknowledges his growing uneasiness. “My concern is that within our conference, conservatives, who are a majority, don’t have a proper platform,” he says. “That’s true at the leadership table and on the steering committee.”
Price says this as an outsider, a position to which he is unaccustomed. Last month, he lost a bid to be conference chairman. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, a Boehner ally, beat him. The final tally, which was conducted by secret ballot, was reportedly close.
Since then, Price has been mulling his options. He has a reputation as a low-key workhorse, but don’t let his soft Southern accent fool you: He remains as ambitious as ever. “It was a tough loss, but my friends said, ‘Fight on,’” Price tells me, as we talk over coffee. “You don’t need to be a leader to lead. Leadership doesn’t require a title.”
Whether that could mean an insurgent run for speaker next month, when the House officially convenes its next session, is unclear.
“I gave up a medical practice to stand up for principles,” says Price, an orthopedic surgeon and former state lawmaker. “My role is changing. My job isn’t so much to be part of the process at the leadership level, contributing to the work product, but to evaluate their work product.”
As he plots his next step, Price, a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, is conferring with backbenchers about their grievances. Some of them are angry with Boehner, following a decision by House leaders last week to remove four conservatives from their committees. Boehner said the move was not an ideological rebuke, but it caused trouble nonetheless.
“Tom has spoken with me about his concerns,” says a veteran House Republican. “He says he doesn’t want conservatives to get burned.” A second House Republican, who was elected in 2010, says Price is slowly building an informal coalition and chatting frequently with a tight circle of conservative members. In recent days, Price has also huddled with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, at Norquist’s office.
Boehner allies, for their part, are confident that the speaker still enjoys the necessary support, and a recent New York Times story says Boehner has wide backing within the conference, from tea-party southerners to northeastern moderates. After Mitt Romney lost the election, many members are not scrambling to depose the most prominent Republican in the country.
And perhaps most important, Boehner’s rivals have also been publicly supportive of the Ohio Republican. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader and long considered Boehner’s top threat, has signed on to Boehner’s position in the fiscal-cliff negotiations. So has whip Kevin McCarthy of California.
Yet the Price question continues to nag. Price has not ruled out anything, and he has rebuffed leadership’s attempts to woo him. For example, when Price began to mount his leadership campaign, Boehner urged him to consider dropping out of the race, and offered him a ceremonial leadership post.
But the offer had a caveat, sources say. Price had to pledge unwavering support to the speaker. Price declined. He thought he could win, regardless of Boehner’s muscle. Ryan, fresh off his vice-presidential run, endorsed him, along with a slew of other House Republicans, such as Representative Jeb Hensarling (R., Tex.) and Representative Mike Pence (R., Ind.). FreedomWorks, RedState, and other conservative activists also backed him.
“At the end of the day, Price thinks Boehner’s people worked against him,” says a Republican House staffer. “His style isn’t to complain publicly, and he doesn’t get emotional, but he is talking to members about how that vote went down.”
Two years ago, Price was elected policy chairman, the conference’s fifth-ranking position. He is considered a serious, conservative legislator by his House peers. The speculation about his plans and his frayed relationship with Boehner hasn’t changed that, but it has made him less predictable.
For the moment, those who know Price well say he’s not eager to begin fighting Boehner, but he is ready to speak out, should the debt talks get messy. “He is hoping for the best, hoping taxes don’t go up with any fiscal-cliff deal,” says a Price ally. “But if Republican leaders make a mistake on taxes, he wants conservatives to battle.”
A Price run for a speakership would likely be fueled by outside conservative groups, but even Price confidants admit that it would be extremely difficult. As his friends explain, Price would consider a run only if there is a groundswell against Boehner later this month. If there is not a groundswell, then they almost certainly lack the wide support and name recognition to mount a serious bid.
Price is also being mentioned as a potential challenger to Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss, who has been critical of Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. In 2014, Chambliss will be up for reelection and Price is considered a top primary contender. “Sometimes opportunity comes along and you weigh whether or not you can be of service,” he says, when asked about the possibility.
Many Republican operatives think the “Price for Speaker” talk in the conservative backrooms is more about scaring Chambliss than scaring Boehner. “I hear he’s interested in that primary, so he’s making his name as a conservative,” says a Georgia-based consultant. “That’s what he’s probably running for, not speaker.”
Price won’t make a final decision about a Senate run until next year. In the meantime, expect him to be more vocal in the lower chamber. “The House is rough and tumble, and I love it,” he says. “If the speaker listens to the conference and agrees to not raise taxes, he’ll be successful.”
“So far, I think the speaker is doing that,” Price says. “But we’ve got to watch what happens.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.