Rep. Peter King wants even the Boy Scouts to know he's upset with his Republican Party.
Rep. Peter King wants even the Boy Scouts to know he’s upset with his Republican Party.
Before a dozen members of Pack 690 from nearby Seaford, N.Y., the longtime Republican congressman declares that the partial government shutdown triggered partly by the demands of the GOP’s right flank “didn’t accomplish anything.”
“We’re back where we started from, except we lost $24 billion out of the economy,” King says with a hint of disgust in his Long Island office.
While some Republicans applaud the hard-line tactics, King is among the waning Republican moderates in Congress who don’t miss an opportunity to distance themselves from the government shutdown — and the conservative minority King blames for leading the Republican Party into “the valley of death.”
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His message is aggressive and consistent whether addressing Scouts or a national audience on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” And his eagerness to buck his party reflects his no-nonsense style as much as the realities of being a Republican congressman in a moderate New York district that President Barack Obama won twice.
Uncompromising conservative ideology might play well in other places, but not across the Northeast, where the Republican Party is fighting for survival.
King, who has flirted with running for president in 2016, concedes that the shutdown presents problems for his party’s chances in next fall’s midterm elections. Democrats need to gain just 17 seats nationwide to regain House control.
“It doesn’t make it easier,” he says of the shutdown’s impact.
He doesn’t like to refer to himself as a moderate, but King is among a shrinking class of pragmatic-minded Republicans in a Congress increasingly defined by partisan extremes. He is perhaps the most vocal critic of his party’s far-right flank, but GOP moderates in swing districts from Pennsylvania to California also have been working to distance themselves from Capitol Hill’s latest crisis. Polls suggest that both parties suffered because of the shutdown, although voters overwhelmingly blamed congressional Republicans more.
New York’s 2nd Congressional District sits in western Long Island, a working-class suburb of New York City that King says is home to more firemen and policemen than Wall Street bankers. Like much of the Northeast, this is a place where independents hold considerable sway and voters generally favor compromise over the partisan paralysis in Washington.
King has won 11 terms so far by focusing largely on national security, fiscal conservatism and a willingness to take on members of his own party. He opposes gay marriage and abortion rights, but he says social issues aren’t his priority.
King proudly displays a recent local newspaper headline that calls him the “voice of sanity” among congressional Republicans during the shutdown.
His constituents seem to agree.
“Thanks for fighting against that silly shutdown. It couldn’t have been easy,” Scout leader and registered Republican Loren Dempsey told King on her way out of his office. “There were too many people that didn’t have a strong enough backbone.”
In recent weeks, King has launched a personal crusade of sorts against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea party hero who led the recent Republican push to close the government unless Democrats dismantled Obama’s signature health care law. King called on GOP leaders to “denounce him by name, say Ted Cruz is ruining the Republican Party.”
He added: “I wish some of these guys that want to be national leaders would speak out. I don’t know anybody else who did it besides me during this time. I actually went and said, ‘This is crazy, Cruz is a fraud, he’s a false prophet, he’s leading us into the valley of death.'”
Cruz’s office dismisses King’s criticisms, with the senator’s spokesman, Sean Rushton saying, “Establishment Washington wants to change the topic.”
Right-flank lawmakers like Cruz call the 16-day shutdown a success because it focused attention on problems with the president’s health care law. But many Republican strategists suggest otherwise, given that the showdown also sent GOP popularity to record lows.
On the streets of Massapequa Park, there is little doubt which brand of Republicanism voters prefer.
“Hey, Pete, clean this mess up!” shouted a man from across the street as King walked out of his office. The congressman shouted back, “I’m trying!”