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Tea Party Insider

Rep. Steve Southerland and the GOP class of 2010 make peace with the House leadership, and vice versa

Apr 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 28 • By JONATHAN STRONG
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Unbeknownst to most of Washington, the coup plotters were gaining steam. The group employed cloak-and-dagger measures to ensure secrecy, such as never gathering all in one place so no one could report its full size and membership. Under House rules, a lawmaker needs an absolute majority of the votes to win the speaker’s gavel. This meant that only a few Republican defections (17) would defeat Boehner, since no Democrats would vote for him. The plan was to obtain enough votes to deny Boehner victory on the first round.

The price of admission to the inner circle was a handwritten declaration of one’s intention to vote against Boehner, and these notes were kept together in an envelope, proof of everyone’s involvement in the event anyone tried to spoil the plot and deny complicity. 

They talked about what would happen in the chaotic conference meeting to follow, where they hoped Cantor or maybe Jeb Hensarling would step forward to challenge the speaker. They talked about confronting Boehner with their intentions, and how to handle it if he cried.

No one ever had to approach Southerland to ask him to join. He was about the likeliest person in the entire House to know what was going on, since he was close to all of its participants. But Southerland wrestled spiritually with what to do.  

“I’m searching. I grew up in a Christian home, and I grew up in Scripture, and you find somewhere in God’s word to use as a reference. When you’re making a major decision, there’s something in there for everybody. There’s something in there for every situation. There’s something in there, and so you’re digging, and you’re searching. And so I did all that. And I was digging and searching and I was coming up with nothing. Nothing!”

The night before the vote, Southerland was at Bullfeathers, a Capitol Hill bar, with Reps. Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, and Raul Labrador. He retreated to his house still searching for the right course of action the next day.

At around 2:20 a.m., Southerland “stumbled upon” a passage in Scripture that pointed the way: David sparing Saul’s life.

In 1 Samuel, Saul, the king of Israel, accompanied by 3,000 men, is trying to kill David, his future successor. Saul enters a cave, not knowing that David is hiding there. Unseen, David cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. When Saul departs the cave, David follows him out and shows him the piece of robe to show he could have killed him but did not. Saul weeps and repents.

But not for long. Soon Saul is back out in the Desert of Ziph trying to kill David again. This time, David and a friend sneak into Saul’s camp at night and find him sleeping, with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. David’s friend wants to kill Saul, but he says no.

“Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?” David asks.

Southerland slept for three hours that night, and when he woke up, he felt a deep, abiding peace, the kind he only gets when he seeks God’s input in prayer on important decisions in his life—“not something you can buy at the dollar store.”

He walked onto the House floor that day wondering what exactly would happen. That morning, Rep. Stephen Fincher, one of his closest allies, had met with Boehner to inform him the group would vote against him, although Southerland didn’t know this.

Among the coup plotters, chaos had overtaken careful plans. Only minutes before the vote, one member lost his nerve, leaving the group short of its self-imposed threshold. They called off the insurrection, leaving participants to vote their conscience. Twelve members withheld their votes from Boehner. Fincher and some others who had signed their names voted for the Ohio Republican. 

When Southerland’s name was called, he cast his lot with Boehner. Sitting three seats away from the majority leader during the vote, Southerland watched Cantor grimace as several lawmakers voted for the Virginian instead of their incumbent speaker. In his mind, Southerland compared Cantor to David, a young Jewish man who would someday be king. 

Perhaps the animating principle of the Tea Party movement and the Republicans who were elected in 2010 was a rejection of business as usual in Washington, including big spending by Republicans.

Southerland came to Washington with no previous legislative experience, unless you count serving on a Florida funeral directors’ board in the 1990s. Ten months into his first term in Congress, he told Roll Call, “I don’t like this place.” 

He voted against the debt ceiling deal in August 2011 and a host of other major bills that the GOP leadership was whipping. He was known for giving passionate speeches at closed-door GOP conference meetings. 

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