By Ali Watkins, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Behind the tangled web of partisanship surrounding Republicans’ impending lawsuit against President Barack Obama, the quiet architect of the GOP’s assault on Pennsylvania Avenue has all but disappeared from the spotlight.
South Carolina freshman Rep. Tom Rice, who championed the idea of a lawsuit before it was popular among his leadership, has found himself outside the circle of Republicans who are captaining the effort. In the explosive aftermath of the House of Representatives’ approval of the suit last month, he’s all but disappeared behind House Speaker John Boehner’s shadow.
“I filed a bill in December that was essentially the same terms. I went out and worked really hard to educate people about it and to get support,” said Rice.
The House leadership was hesitant to push his resolution forward, however, although Rice does boast about pinning down 120 co-sponsors.
Despite the support, the resolution lingered, stuck in legislative limbo through the early winter months. But then the White House continued to threaten executive action against a complacent Congress, and the Republican-majority House decided to throw a curve ball at the Oval Office.
The proposal for a civil suit was already in play, thanks to Rice, but rather than take up the South Carolinian’s resolution the chamber’s leadership decided to write a new piece of legislation.
“It was essentially the same terms as my original,” Rice said.
He was tapped to weigh in, and he does get a nod from his colleagues in the House leadership.
“Our team felt we needed to focus narrowly to give us the best chance of getting legal standing,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner. “Rep. Rice’s work was crucial for building the legal theory behind our challenge, and he met with the speaker and our team to discuss it before any steps were taken.”
While Rice’s original lawsuit resolution referred to a broad range of alleged constitutional violations, the leadership’s version focuses on the Affordable Care Act. The wide scope of Rice’s original proposal, Boehner’s office said, might have made it difficult to get the lawsuit through the door.
Rice was pegged, along with fellow South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, to be a media go-to for the leadership’s operation, since he and Gowdy showed particular interest in the issue, according to the speaker’s office.
“Congressman Rice did not introduce the resolution to increase his name recognition or get public attention,” said Rice’s spokeswoman, Caroline Vanvick. “He introduced the resolution to protect the Constitution.”
Rice might say he’s OK with being usurped, but his supporters at home are not.
“He stole that issue from Tom Rice,” Myrtle Beach Tea Party Chairman Joe Dugan said when he was asked about Boehner’s role in the lawsuit. “I have done everything in my power to remind people that this was an issue that was authored by Tom Rice.”
Right off the bat, it was a bold proposal for the first-term congressman, who’d previously sponsored only two other pieces of legislation, which had to do with adjustments to protected coastal lands. But as a conservative former tax lawyer, Rice didn’t like the president’s executive actions to delay some of the Affordable Care Act’s deadlines and it led to his Stop This Overreaching Presidency — or STOP — Resolution.
Although he isn’t the leading face of the movement, Rice’s original push for the civil suit has certainly upped his capital in the party. The Horry County native, despite having no previous political experience beyond being the chair of the county council, landed himself a subcommittee chairmanship within his first months in office.
It’s an uncommon honor in general, and especially rare given his rookie status.
Rice himself toes an interesting political line, at least when considering he hails from one of the country’s most staunchly Republican strongholds. Although he’s quietly become a darling of D.C.’s conservative lawmakers, he rounds out the bottom of South Carolina’s Republican delegation, his 80 percent conservative rating from the American Conservative Union trailing second-to-last Rep. Mick Mulvaney by 8 percentage points.
And although the Tea Party is rallying around the potential of the lawsuit, Rice has made a concerted effort to keep the far right away from his campaign. Instead, he walks that delicate territory between the moderate conservatives and the die-hard right wing, never clearly associating himself with the ideals of the far-flung fringes of the party but trying to unify all his fellow Republicans under a battle cry to defeat the Democrats.
“He was not our first choice during the primary,” the Tea Party’s Dugan said. “Although he said that he was more of a moderate during his first campaign … I think that he has turned out to be an excellent congressman.”
The conservative base in Rice’s home state certainly supports the lawsuit, although the notion that it might lead to impeachment is something that the congressman — along with the House leadership — vehemently denies.
“It simply will not happen. I never pushed for that or asked for that,” Rice said.
Outside the partisan throes, many say the lawsuit won’t accomplish much.
“This lawsuit will be an embarrassing loser for the House Republican party. I rate its chances of getting in the door and getting considered at all as somewhere between zero and nothing,” said Charles Tiefer, former legal counsel to the House and currently a law professor at the University of Baltimore.
Although Republicans are touting the suit as a means to restore the constitutional balance of powers, Tiefer warned that it might just shift the imbalance elsewhere.
“I think that the judges will be disgusted by trying to drag them into what they’ll see as a sleazy political fight,” he said, laughing at the possibility of impeachment. “Some judges who want to be completely free of political interference may regard this kind of partisan lawsuit as an attempt to soil the judicial robe.”
Until it’s filed, though, Rice is quietly pushing the lawsuit forward, although at this point, he said, the process is out of his hands.
“I don’t know how much more of a role there is. … The resolution has passed,” he said. “I think they’re doing their legwork for the lawsuit. I think you should see a lawsuit filed before too awful long.”
Photo: Crazy George via Flickr