Ties to House leader pay off for Simpson, Idaho

The Idaho StatesmanFebruary 7, 2006 

— It's a long road from the Blackfoot City Council to the most powerful warrens of Washington, but Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has completed the trip.

Simpson is a close confidant of the new power in the House, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. On Wednesday afternoon, Boehner upset acting Majority Leader Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in the race to replace scandal-sodden Rep. Tom DeLay.

By the time Simpson got home Wednesday night, the two years' labor appeared to have borne fruit: He got word he'd won a seat on an appropriations subcommittee that wrote $142 billion in health and education budgets this year. Though he's not sure there's a direct connection, Simpson said, "Obviously, people knew I was one of John's primary campaigners."

The Washington Post called Simpson a "winner," The Hill noted his role as vote-counter, and Congressional Quarterly put Simpson in Boehner's five-member "Kitchen Cabinet."

Until DeLay's indictment and the lobbying scandal forced him from his post, Simpson cooked largely in secret. Two years ago he confided to me a daring gambit: He was part of a cabal conspiring against DeLay.

The aim was to make Boehner (pronounced BAY-ner) the alternative to DeLay when Speaker Dennis Hastert retired. The plotters met in Boehner's office and at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Alexandria, Va. "Frankly, we didn't want this to get out," Simpson said. "Tom DeLay's a very powerful person."

But Simpson believed DeLay too polarizing to lead in a closely divided country. "It's not that I don't like Tom, and I'm not speaking ill of the dead, but he's not the face we needed for the party."

Simpson aspires to be a "Cardinal," one of the 11 Appropriations subcommittee chairmen who have enormous power over spending. In three years on the full committee, Simpson has secured earmarks for the Boise Airport tower, housing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, research at two Boise hospitals and a reactor at the Idaho National Lab.

For Simpson to be a Cardinal, the GOP must keep the majority, which could be lost if Democrats pick up 15 seats in November. If all goes well, Simpson figures he could be a Cardinal as soon as 2011.

By that time, Boehner will likely be speaker, assuming the GOP stays in power and Hastert retires, as expected. Boehner's boys planned to fight DeLay when Hastert quit. But when DeLay resigned his leadership post, they turned their sights on Blunt, DeLay's lieutenant who was favored to climb the next rung on the ladder.

Blunt claimed he'd locked up votes to win on the first ballot. Instead, he fell six short. Boehner won on the second ballot, 122 to 109.

Other than his election to the Blackfoot council, the Idaho House and Congress in 1998, Simpson counts Boehner's win as the most important event in his political life.

"I have someone in leadership I trust, who's a good friend, who I can talk to and he'll listen," Simpson said. "There will be times he looks at me and says, 'I can't do that, Mike; that's not in the best interests of the (GOP) Conference.' But he'll be able to be honest and forthright and that's important to me."

Boehner, in a statement, credited Simpson for being an early supporter and "an integral part of my win last week. Mike was a friend long before this race, and I look forward to working with him in my new capacity."

Simpson and Boehner are both conservative, but neither is an ideologue. Boehner, for example, worked with Democrats to co-author the No Child Left Behind Act.

"John is better for maintaining the majority and better for quieting some of the partisanship, which I think is better for the country in the long run," Simpson said.

Former Democratic Rep. Larry LaRocco agrees, even though Boehner came to Idaho in 1994 to help beat LaRocco. "He's a legislator and will work with all sides," said LaRocco.

That is good for the country. And, parochially speaking, Simpson's relationship with the majority leader is very, very good for Idaho.

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