For a member of Congress to accuse his party leaders of lying to him, and for their aides to return the favor, is about as rare as the drama that surrounded last week’s procedural vote — a vote that led to the passage of the $1.1 trillion spending bill.
That’s the situation Representative Marlin Stutzman (R., Ind.) found himself in last week after he lent his support to the spending package at a moment when it seemed unlikely to ever receive a final vote. Stutzman initially voted no on what is known as “the rule” — the procedural step that allows House leadership to bring the bill to the floor for debate. When he and one other member switched their no votes to yes, they set the stage for the ultimate success of the spending package.
The episode only heightens the distrust between leadership and conservative grassroots activists, who usually expect establishment Republicans to betray them. That suspicion has empowered junior lawmakers to override the will of more-senior Republicans.
Once in the limelight, Stutzman reacted by sending mixed messages and then falling as silent as the Republican leaders. He elevated the controversy Thursday night, when he claimed that his support for the rule was obtained under false pretenses.
“Earlier today, I supported the rule because I was informed by leadership that the cromnibus was dead and a short-term CR would take its place,” Stutzman said in a Thursday-evening statement after National Review Online reported on the apparent deal. “I was very surprised and even more disappointed to see the cromnibus back on the floor.”
Republican leadership passed the bill Thursday evening after President Obama and House Democratic whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) convinced dozens of Democrats who had tried to kill the cromnibus on the procedural vote to nonetheless support the final package.
GOP leaders denied reneging on a promise to Stutzman: “Speaker Boehner did not talk with Representative Stutzman yesterday, and we don’t know what he is talking about,” one senior GOP leadership aide tells NRO. A senior aide to House leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) was even more definitive: “At no time was that communicated by the leadership team or the whip team.”
It makes sense that it’s Stutzman at the center of such a controversy. Throughout his four years in Congress, the tea-party congressman has been the backbencher with some of the closest ties to GOP leadership. But he’s also prone to bucking the party line when it violates his conservative principles.
Stutzman worked with Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) last October in an attempt to defund Obamacare by attaching the proposal to a must-pass spending bill that funded the rest of government, despite leadership’s initial hesitance to pick a fight over defunding Obamacare.
When Senate Democrats blocked the measure, and the government then shut down, Stutzman made an embarrassing gaffe. “We have to get something out of this,” Stutzman told reporters at the time. “And I don’t know what that even is.” Stutzman walked back the comment the next day, saying that he had “carelessly misrepresented” the position of the Republican conference.
The shutdown fight isn’t the only time the Indiana conservative has demonstrated a willingness to cross party leaders. In the summer of 2012, he challenged “Washington’s unholy alliance of farm policy and nutrition policy,” a reference to the farm bill, which contains farm subsidies and food-stamp funding. Stutzman voted against the farm bill — a risky move given that he represents a farming district — and forced Republicans to split the food-stamp provisions away from the farm bill. He was kicked off the whip team for his defiance.
Stutzman isn’t a stranger to behind-the-scenes party politics. He won his congressional seat by convincing a majority of Republican precinct captains who attended a caucus to back him as the successor to Representative Mark Souder, his old boss. Souder resigned suddenly in 2010 after admitting that he was having an affair with a part-time staffer. Among Indiana Republicans, Stutzman — or at least his political team — is rumored to have triggered the resignation by leaking the damaging information to Fox News.
“Though I am frustrated at Marlin (more in a minute), he’s probably best qualified and basically a very good man, for all his over-aggressive ambition,” Souder wrote to party officials in a Facebook message shortly after his resignation.
Stutzman has been candid about wanting to move up in the world, telling Roll Call that he made a long-shot bid for House whip in order to set the stage for later advancement. “Sometimes you have to lose in order to build something for the future,” Stutzman said in an August interview. That future could include moving up in leadership, running for Indiana governor when Republican Mike Pence leaves office, or challenging Senator Joe Donnelly (D., Ind.) in 2018.
“I don’t close very many doors, and I don’t burn very many bridges,” Stutzman told Roll Call.
That ambition provides some insight into the situation that captivated Washington’s attention last week. Stutzman issued an inflammatory statement, but only after the cromnibus package had passed the House; he accused leadership of breaking a promise during the several hours of recess Thursday afternoon and evening, when they were whipping votes for the bill. Since issuing the statement, he has refused to say anything about the matter that might further antagonize leadership. His aides rebuffed requests from NRO for an account of his conversations with leadership on the House floor, while his spokesman told a local reporter that the situation wouldn’t “make him distrust leadership.”
Leadership aides have been similarly scant on details, beyond contradicting Stutzman. “I think he’s ambitious enough to want to curry favor with the leadership,” one Indiana conservative who knows Stutzman tells NRO. But the prospect of running for statewide office “means he needs to curry favor with more of the tea-party types.”
In short, Stutzman wants some higher office — be that governor, senator, or House leadership — but he doesn’t seem to know what that is yet. As a result, he doesn’t have an incentive to say anything more about his unexpected procedural vote.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.