Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador met with two Republicans in the Idaho House last week to explain his opposition to Gov. Butch Otter's plan for a state-run online insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act.
Intervention on a legislative matter by a member of Congress is rare. Coupled with Labrador's talk of challenging Otter in 2014, his Jan. 30 visit stirred considerable controversy enough that House Speaker Scott Bedke met with Labrador to voice his concern.
"I have a large freshman class and they're trying to find their sea legs," said Bedke, R-Oakley, on Wednesday. "I want them to develop into their own people and vote their consciences, not based on any influence that I put on them as speaker. By the same token, I don't want them to be persuaded because he's the congressman or Gov. Otter is the governor."
Requests last week and on Wednesday for comment from Labrador went unanswered.
Otter said he didn't lobby legislators during his six years in Congress and objected to pressure from above when he served there and in the Idaho House. As governor, he said, he just provides facts. "Anybody who's ever been in my office would tell you that what I have said is you have to vote your conscience," Otter said Wednesday.
Otter, however, said, "I'm not going to make a judgment. He's got his style, I've got mine."
'BACK TO HIGH SCHOOL'
But House Health & Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, a key ally of Otter and Bedke on the insurance exchange proposal, was blunt, saying it was "inappropriate" for Labrador to "lobby or interject himself into the politics of the Legislature in any manner."
Added Wood: "You have to wonder why a member of Congress who has so many issues on his plate at the federal level would come back and start I don't know what the word is but start meddling in the affairs of the state Legislature. To me, that's almost like somebody that goes off to college and comes back to high school. I mean, you've graduated and gone on to bigger and better things. What are you doing back here?"
Wood, Bedke and Otter say a state exchange will save Idahoans money, run more smoothly and preserve Idaho jobs. Labrador argues the state should continue to resist the Affordable Care Act, as have most states with GOP governors.
The two lawmakers Labrador jawboned Reps. Brandon Hixon of Caldwell and Luke Malek of Coeur d'Alene said there was no harm done and they remain undecided.
"I didn't feel uncomfortable," Hixon said. "It wasn't to the extent where he was thrashing about or anything, where he was grabbing me by the collar and saying, 'Hey, you need to pay attention to this!' He was very subtle in his approach and I didn't feel pressured at all."
Said Malek: "He took a position, but he wasn't encouraging me to take a position. I wouldn't say he was lobbying. It was just a mutual discussion."
STOPPING 'BAD POLICY'
Malek and Hixon are 31, the youngest in a historically large freshman class. House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said the meetings were not intended to take advantage of their inexperience. Crane said he chose Hixon and Malek to speak to his friend Labrador as promising lawmakers who would benefit from the experience. Labrador served in the Idaho House from 2006 to 2010 before going to Congress.
"If I'm a freshman legislator and a congressman wants to meet me and say what's going on in Washington, D.C., and this is what I'm hearing around the state, to me that's a benefit," Crane said.
Crane said the matter has "been blown way out of proportion" and countered speculation that Labrador seeks to sabotage Otter's signature initiative of 2013 to soften him for a challenge in the 2014 GOP gubernatorial primary.
"If Congressman Labrador wanted to use this as a springboard to run for governor, he wouldn't be up here lobbying people not to pass the exchange," Crane said. "He'd want the thing to go into effect and be able to lay it at somebody's feet and blame that person. He's trying to stop bad policy."
Hixon said he's heard talk that he was warned that he'd get a primary opponent in 2014 should he vote for the exchange, but that claim is false. "I've heard that, but I wasn't threatened," he said.
Malek said it didn't occur to him that Labrador was crossing a line. "I'm certainly not the most wizened of legislators, so there may be a game I'm just not keen to. But it certainly didn't feel that way," he said.
Malek said he is convinced what some call a "third option" that refusing a state option could mean the end of any exchange is "just not factual." Malek said the federal government will keep its promise to operate the exchange if Idaho bows out.
Bedke said Labrador acknowledged that point. "There's a school of thought that there's a third option, no exchange," Bedke said. "I came away from the conversation with the understanding that we're stuck with an exchange, period."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438Twitter: @IDS_politics