"To go to the grocery store and get a gallon of milk takes me two or three hours,” said Rep. Steve Southerland, and you definitely believe him. Southerland isn’t the world’s slowest shopper. His grocery stops are constantly interrupted by people he knows through the family business, a network of funeral homes in the panhandle of Florida.
Undertaker is not on most “best jobs” lists, but Southerland actually misses his work back home. His grandparents lived at the funeral home, and as a kid he stayed there Friday nights. When he was growing up, everybody around town would spontaneously hug his dad.
“You get to know people at a very intense moment of their life. You just are grafted into their family,” Southerland said. “If you love helping people, and you love trying to bring comfort and peace to their life at a very, very difficult time, you’re going to have to look pretty hard to find a profession that gives you more opportunities than the funeral business.”
Southerland is the kind of person who pours boundless energy into engaging with people. Newt Gingrich once told me I had seven minutes for a phone interview; Southerland is more likely to turn a short chat into an hourlong conversation.
He is surprisingly earnest for Washington, D.C.—even for a congressman elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, the year a lot of unlikely characters ended up on Capitol Hill. A deeply religious Christian, Southerland says he prays about all his major decisions and talks often and openly about what God says back.
He has a tendency to speak in strings of truisms, like this: “I believe in process. I believe in four seasons. I believe that winter’s tough, but spring’s coming. I believe that there’s a growing season. And I think that you realize that in life you grow. You get better.”
At his baby-blue brick townhouse a three-minute walk from the Capitol, Southerland plays host to his Tea Party friends. The events, often graced with the Bayou-style cooking of former congressman Jeff Landry, Southerland’s close friend, have been dubbed the “Cajun Caucus.”
Southerland was recently elected the sophomore class representative, an unexpected turn that came when former senator Jim DeMint resigned and Rep. Tim Scott, the previous class representative, was appointed to fill DeMint’s seat in the Senate.
The Florida Republican, a fierce conservative who butted heads with leadership in the last Congress, now sits alongside Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor at meetings to determine GOP strategy in the House.
So far, the result has been a boost in trust on both sides. Southerland doesn’t hold back. Instead, he gives top Republicans a real, live Tea Party conservative to bounce ideas off. Meanwhile, the 2010 class gets a window into leadership’s deliberations.
“I give him a lot of credit for the conference being more united,” said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Southerland’s story is the tale not just of the Tea Party class coming of political age, but also of the chaos and conflict of the fiscal cliff battle actually strengthening the GOP conference.
Two months later, it’s easy to forget what an ugly episode the fight over the fiscal cliff was for the House GOP. As Southerland put it, it was a “time of aggravation.”
“Everybody’s kind of ill from the election still. Everybody was on edge. There was this general feeling that we just got the tar kicked out of us and we want to make sure that we get back in the game,” Southerland said. “You start analyzing. You start saying, ‘Okay, what do we need to do different?’ ”
On January 1, tax cuts from the George W. Bush era were due to expire and automatic “sequestration” cuts were to begin. Boehner had tried to put tax increases on the table in secret talks with Obama, only to suddenly pull back to his “Plan B,” which he then withdrew for lack of GOP support in a spectacularly humiliating episode.
On New Year’s Eve, as senators hashed out a deal that would enrage the House, Southerland’s usual group had come for an unexpected session of the Cajun Caucus. Ron Meyer Jr., the 23-year-old activist who launched the Twitter hashtag #FireBoehner, showed up somehow, and there was furtive talk of a coup to unseat the speaker. Southerland, who hadn’t invited Meyer, worried about appearances. He directed another guest to ask Meyer to leave.
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.
In spite of, or maybe because of, his battles with leadership, Boehner in April 2012 appointed Southerland to his first conference committee, a group of senators and representatives convened to hash out the differences between House and Senate versions of a transportation bill.
Southerland and his freshman friends showed up to their assigned working groups surprised to find aides representing the senators.
“I’m going: I think the American people think that if you’re named to a conference . . . you’re going to go and represent the people,” he said.
The conference process gave Southerland his first up-close exposure to the challenge of getting a bill through the House and the Senate and signed into law by the president, something that’s simple on paper but hard in reality.
“You started realizing: You know what? There’s a lot that goes into this. . . . It opened my eyes up to the effort. It opened my eyes up to the challenges,” Southerland said.
By the time the class representative slot fell vacant in December, it was clear Southerland had become a class standout. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., another sharp sophomore Republican, told Southerland he should consider running, pointing out his relationships across the class.
Southerland was elected class representative the day after Boehner survived as speaker. A week later, at a retreat where Southerland sat down as a member of the leadership team for the first time, he told Boehner of his late-night change of heart. “He thanked me. I think that it helped him understand me. I think that the conversation we had helped me understand him. Look, none of us are perfect,” Southerland said.
Boehner, for his part, began to change his approach. He vowed to preserve “regular order,” meaning he would no longer engage Obama in secret negotiations.
At the Republican retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, in January, Boehner sought the input of a working group of five influential conservatives—Paul Ryan, Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, Steve Scalise, and Jim Jordan—on a new approach to the pending debt ceiling standoff.
The proceedings there produced almost shocking unity on the resulting plan: a short-term debt limit increase attached to a relatively modest demand—for the Senate to finally pass a budget. One reason was several commitments Boehner made to the working group on spending levels, including that the GOP budget would eliminate the deficit in only 10 years.
Most important, the House is now focused almost entirely on pushing the Senate to act, on the budget and everything else. “We’re trying to explain to the American people: The Senate’s not doing its work. Last term, we passed stuff, passed stuff, passed stuff—and it would just sit there and die!” McCarthy said.
That approach limits moments of political exposure, internally and externally, otherwise known as votes. If the House maintains its current pace, it could set a record for inactivity.
Conservatives are happy, since Boehner is holding firm on the sequestration spending cuts. Moderates might be concerned, but they show no signs of panic.
There’s a school of thought that all the chaos and conflict over the fiscal cliff helped the GOP work through its internal issues.
“Would they have come out of Williamsburg united if it wasn’t for the confrontation?” asks Landry. “By having that conflict . . . I actually believe we’re stronger,” McCarthy said.
Asked a question about the tests ahead for the GOP, Southerland points to the long scar on his head. As a boy, he was nearly killed in a baseball accident in the fifth inning when he collided with another player chasing a fly ball. His last memory of the game is from the second inning when his coach made him bunt.
“One thing I learned a long time ago,” he said. “When I’m in the second inning, I don’t worry about the fifth.”
Jonathan Strong is a staff writer for Roll Call, covering the House leadership.