Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole isn’t just a member of a House-Senate conference committee assigned to negotiate the U.S. budget.
The six-term lawmaker, widely viewed as a voice of partisan restraint on fiscal issues, is Speaker John Boehner’s choice to put a less polarizing face on the House Republican caucus that was defined by the anti-government Tea Party wing during the 16-day partial federal shutdown this month.
“This is public-relations positioning; he’s trying to get the branding back,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist and former House and Senate leadership aide, said of Boehner in an interview. “By putting a pragmatic conservative like Tom Cole on the committee, it ensures that reasonable voice in the mix.”
The government shutdown, spurred by the insistence of Republicans who control the House to eliminate funding for Obamacare, led to a record-low 28 percent favorability rating for the party, according to a Gallup Poll. In seeking to improve the public image of his caucus, Boehner is turning to Cole as an agent for such a shift.
“There’s a middle way to be found,” Cole said in an interview. “John Boehner’s been looking for that middle for a long time.”
Cole’s appointment to the negotiations “certainly should change the perception, and it should change the whole tone of the debate,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, said in an interview. King called Cole “reasonable, pragmatic and a person who has a sense of history.”
FreedomWorks, an ally of the Tea Party movement, has a different view, with Dean Clancy, the vice president for public policy, saying the group is “concerned” about Cole representing House Republicans on the conference committee.
“He seems to us to be someone prone to a preemptive surrender,” Clancy said in an interview. “He’s not likely to be a fighter for sound fiscal policy.”
The budget panel created by the Oct. 16 measure that ended the shutdown and raised U.S. borrowing authority has a little more than six weeks to reconcile differences over taxes and spending. Both parties have been lowering expectations for a deal to trim the nation’s $17 trillion debt.
The Boehner-Cole alliance started in 1992 when Boehner, an Ohio Republican, was in his first congressional term and Cole was executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party’s House campaign arm. Boehner then was part of a group of freshmen who were taking on their party’s establishment.
Cole was elected to Congress in 2002. He has a lifetime rating of 73 percent from the Club for Growth, a group that advocates for limited government. Since the arrival of Tea Party and libertarian-backed House Republicans in 2010 and 2012, Cole and Boehner have come to represent the middle of the party.
Clancy of FreedomWorks says while Cole’s “lifetime score” for that group is 71, on this year’s votes it’s 33, which he says is “a territory occupied usually by Democrats.”
A part of Boehner’s leadership team as deputy vote counter, Cole has gone on television to say some House Republicans are willing to negotiate. Cole had at least 10 television appearances in the run-up to and during the partial shutdown, which he opposed and called a “big mistake.”
A member of the Chickasaw Nation, Cole has deep roots in the Republican Party’s operations and also in Oklahoma. He was the party’s state chairman, served as secretary of state in Oklahoma, and was chief of staff for the Republican National Committee during the 2000 election cycle.
On the conference committee, Cole will work alongside Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and his party’s most sought-after voice on fiscal issues. Ryan, the Republican 2012 vice presidential nominee, voted against the Oct. 16 measure to end the shutdown, while Cole and Boehner voted for it.
“We are here because we want to get an agreement,” Ryan said at the start of the first conference meeting today.
Boehner cast floor votes 16 times this congressional session. Cole sided with him 15 times, missing the other vote.
Because of that alliance, Cole’s selection for the panel is “no question” a smart move by the speaker, said Representative Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican.
“I can’t think of a better spokesman and advocate for what we are doing who can also offer the type of wisdom that promotes our values,” Womack said in an interview.
“He’s a strong conservative but he also has a very good dose of Midwestern common sense,” Van Hollen said in an interview.
During the often bruising fiscal fights of the past few years, Cole has made some attempts at compromise. Late in 2012 when Congress was approaching the so-called fiscal cliff of $600 billion in spending cuts and tax increases, Cole was the first Republican to back continuing tax cuts for most Americans while letting lower tax rates for high earners expire.
When Tea Party-backed Republicans scuttled Boehner’s proposal, called Plan B, Cole said it offered “a chance to make 85 percent or 90 percent of the Bush tax cuts permanent for 99 percent of the American people.”
Instead, Republicans ended up accepting tax increases for those households making $450,000 and up.
In a Bloomberg Television interview last week, Cole said that as part of spending negotiations, he’s willing to consider additional revenue, such as generating money from U.S. companies’ untaxed overseas profits and tax-code revisions.
When House Republicans delayed disaster funds for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, Cole urged passage.
“There is a federal responsibility to act,” he said in January. “We have a national interest in getting this region on its feet as quickly as possible.”
Cole also opposed his party on the Violence Against Women Act, calling for its adoption and voting in favor of the measure backed by Senate Democrats.
When Cole was the head of the Republican campaign committee in 2008, he tussled with Boehner. The group’s money woes and lack of strategy to win back the House majority prompted Boehner to call for the firings of NRCC staff and for Cole to say he’d resign over Boehner’s interference.
In the end, Cole complimented Boehner for being an ally and backer of the House Republicans’ campaign arm. Cole has since become one of the speaker’s most loyal followers.
“He’s willing to do the right thing,” Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said in an interview. “At this point we just need people who would to the right thing for the right reasons.”
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