My story Sunday about the tiff between Idaho's two Republican congressmen has prompted a number of questions to me about why Rep. Mike Simpson went nuclear on his junior colleague, Rep. Raul Labrador.
In short, I'd say that Simpson is ticked at Labrador for two reasons: attacking his good friend, Speaker John Boehner, and, in Simpson's view, undermining an institution that he loves, for all its flaws.
"I think it could be a little of both," agreed Jim Weatherby, Boise State political scientist emeritus. Weatherby noted that Simpson is a former Idaho House speaker, who understands the pressures and difficulties of the job. "He respects the office of the speaker, having been one himself."
Simpson said Labrador had forever compromised his credibility by helping lead a failed attempt to unseat Boehner and that he fundamentally misunderstands the governing responsibilities of the majority party.
Labrador and Simpson hadn't spoken, as of Friday at least. Labrador left the country on Jan. 4, the day after Boehner was re-elected speaker without his vote. Labrador was one of six members of an all-Republican House delegation led by Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Labrador returned Sunday, having visited Turkey, Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Spain, reviewing security at U.S. embassies.
Labrador phoned Friday from Morocco. I had shared with him a transcript of my interview with Simpson.
His first comments captured his insurgent ethic and distaste for Simpson's deal-making: "The question is what kind of credibility do congressmen need today. Is it the credibility that you’re a Washington insider who has been there for a long period of time and has actually contributed to the deficit, the debt and the problems that we have in America? If that’s the credibility somebody needs, that’s not the kind of credibility I want.
"Or is it the credibility that you have with your constituents when you make certain promises to them – that you were going to fight for them, you were going to fight for less spending, less government and you were not going to become part of the Establishment and you kept those promises? And I believe that’s the credibility that I have."
Labrador, who is beginning his third year in Congress, then called the 15-year veteran Simpson an "old-school legislator that went to Washington, D.C., to compromise."
As for Simpson's saying the rebellion would make its proponents less effective, Labrador also pushed back with self-assurance:
"With all due respect to the people who have served in this position, I think I’ve been about as effective as any congressman has been. I have been in the middle of every negotiation, I have been in the middle of every fight that we have had in Washington, D.C., and my opinion and my voice has mattered in every single one of them."
Labrador said he's not afraid he will be punished by Boehner, who he is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon in Washington.
"I’m not, because I didn’t come here to get a title," Labrador said. "I didn’t go to Washington, D.C., to get a committee. I went to Washington, D.C. to change the way things are being done."
Labrador also took after Simpson for speaking to the press before talking to him. I asked about the interests of Idahoans -- who have just two members in the 435-member House -- who count on their delegation to get along.
"It is important, but Mike is used to being the bull in the china shop," Labrador said. "He has a tendency to be a bully with people who disagree with him. It has worked with other people, like with (former GOP Rep. Bill) Sali. It doesn’t work with me."
The circumstances of my interview with Simpson bolster my view that he sought to protect both a friend and the institution. Simpson was in the audience for last Wednesday's City Club of Boise "pundits forum," which Weatherby moderated and included me, John Miller of the AP and Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review.
Before the punditry, I went to say hello to Simpson, who was seated at the Boise State table with another former Idaho Speaker, Bruce Newcomb, a close friend.
I began by asking Simpson about speculation that he might be a compromise candidate for speaker should Boehner, R-Ohio, falter. Simpson told me he would have no interest in the job.
"What? Shoot myself?" Simpson said. "Somebody was speculating, but I like what I’m doing."
Said Simpson, "Boehner is between about a rock and a hard spot as I’ve ever seen any speaker. Because you try to do things with your majority, but he’s got about a third of our majority who are out there. And trying to get a majority to come together, it’s hard to compromise within our own conference – let alone between the Democrats."
Simpson noted that Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., supported Boehner, though he's been seen as the leading alternative to Boehner and got votes for speaker from the dissident group. "I don’t think it’s them so much as I think it’s their staffs in the past have had some conflict," Simpson said. "But I think they’re pretty much over it. And in fact, in conference in our organization session, it was Cantor that nominated Boehner."
Asked if Boehner will survive, Simpson then took on the "co-conspirators" who tried to unseat Boehner on the floor. Simpson said they'd "lost substantial credibility within the conference."
I asked if Labrador was among that group and Simpson repeated himself, without naming Labrador. Newcomb, seeking to protect his friend, called for Simpson's press secretary, Nikki Watts, who was seated a couple tables away. "We need Nikki!" Newcomb said. "We need Nikki!"
Despite the warning, Simpson plunged ahead when I asked him to describe Labrador's refusal to cast a vote, pointedly ignoring the clerk calling the roll.
His anger became sharp: "He just didn’t vote. Which, as anyone who’s ever been in a legislative body will tell you, you got one thing going for you and that’s your credibility. And once you lose that credibility it’s gone and it’s gone forever. You don’t get it back. And I think that’s happened with some people."
Is Labrador's open defiance a signal he'll be running for governor in 2014 and leaving Congress? "No," Simpson replied. "I read it as fundamentally not understanding how you govern -- what it means to be in the majority."