OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s congressional delegation is entirely Republican, but a few days into a new term it’s proving to not be solidly aligned behind the party’s leaders.
While Oklahoma’s four House and Senate veterans, who have a combined 60 years of legislative experience, typically follow their leaders, two freshmen House members — Reps. Jim Bridenstine and Markwayne Mullinhave — have emerged as a new breed.
“Like everybody else, they’re independent and have their ideas and want to express them,” said Rep. Tom Cole. “They own their voting cards, so to speak, and I think they’ll both do well over time here.”
Bridenstine made waves Thursday when he voted against the re-election of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, as House Speaker, and Bridenstine and Mullin both voted Friday against allocating Hurricane Sandy relief aid for the Northeast. Even Rep. James Lankford, who has quickly moved up the leadership ranks in just his second term in office, broke with the rest of the Oklahoma delegation and voted against resolving the “fiscal cliff” resolution, in effect supporting a tax increase on virtually all Oklahomans.
Tom Daxon, a former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, said he was concerned that Bridenstine’s vote against Boehner on his first day on the job was a politically risky one.
“There are some obvious risks there. Anytime you get yourself that out there and that isolated, then that puts you in a position where you have to overcompensate to get back to zero,” Daxon said. “Hopefully he was aware of things and considering things like this when he voted.”
But Cole said Bridenstine didn’t do political damage to himself or the Tulsa area Bridenstine represents.
“Frankly, the Speaker made it very clear this morning in conference. He said: ‘Look, I want to thank each and every one of you that voted for me, and for those that did not, I want you to know I don’t believe in retaliation or retribution and I appreciate you expressing your opinions openly and honestly. I know that’s not easy to do, and my door’s always open.”’
And despite votes against the Hurricane Sandy aid, Cole downplayed any suggestion that the two freshmen weren’t considered “team players.”
“They’ll be evaluated over time by their colleagues and their constituents, and I have no doubt they’re able to defend their votes and explain their positions,” Cole said.
Bridenstine and Mullin both said the country shouldn’t spend money it doesn’t have to extend additional disaster aid.
Amanda Winton, who lives in Tulsa, said she would give Bridenstine “the benefit of the doubt” as a freshman legislator, but said she fears that because of Oklahoma’s tumultuous weather, the state will one day find itself in need.
“Oklahoma has seen many, many disasters and we know what it’s like to rebuild. This is a place where government is helpful and necessary,” said Winton, 32. “We’re going to need that help (again). There’s no question.”
Mike Sperry, a teacher in Mullin’s district from Jay, said he fears his new congressman was voting with his wallet instead of his heart.
“Where did Christ say worry about your pocketbook more than your neighbor? Maybe I’m reading a different Bible,” said Sperry, 50. “We should treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. What kind of example are you setting? Forget ideology and do what’s right for the country.”
Bridenstine’s spokeswoman, Sheryl Kaufman, said the new congressman’s votes follow a principle on which he campaigned — that Republicans need new leadership. Losing seats in the House and failing to take the White House and the Senate were part of the problems, she said.
“It’s the sort of thing where, as Jim put it, if this were football, we’d be looking for a new coach,” she said.
She said Bridenstine was not aware of any political trouble ahead and that, “at this point, we’re just hoping the parties will rise above that and that there won’t be any backlash. He has been confirmed on the committees that he was announced for, and so far nothing bad.”
Lankford said this week that despite essentially voting for a tax increase by voting against the fiscal cliff deal, he couldn’t in good conscience vote for the measure without any cuts to spending.
“I could not support a bill that simply addressed the short-term fiscal cliff without addressing our long-term spending problems,” Lankford said in a statement after Tuesday’s vote.