WHARTON, Texas (AP) — As he travels his southeast Texas district this week, Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold has a message for his constituents: Despite appearances, the House GOP is not in disarray.
His voters, in turn, have a message for him: Good riddance to the current slate of GOP leaders, and find a new speaker who will stand up for conservative values.
Such exchanges in more than a dozen town hall meetings Farenthold has held this week, including Thursday at a coffee house in Wharton and a VFW hall in Bay City, underscore the pressures — and opportunities — surrounding the House Republican leadership crisis for rank-and-file conservatives like Farenthold.
Elected in 2010 along with dozens of other tea party-backed Republicans, Farenthold shares his constituents' deep frustration with what many voters see as the half-measures and conditional victories of divided government. He agrees when voters accuse outgoing House Speaker John Boehner and his No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of failing to stand up to President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
But as Farenthold and his colleagues warily confront a leadership void now that Boehner has announced his resignation and McCarthy has bowed out of the speaker's race, the Texan also is reckoning with demands from voters that may be difficult, even impossible, to satisfy.
Voters see a chance to restore conservative leadership to the House and finally take the fight to Obama. Yet, even though it's not yet clear who will replace Boehner, the budgetary deadlines looming in coming weeks raise the possibility that the next speaker could be forced into the same compromises and retreats as the current one in showdowns over must-pass legislation to keep highway projects going or to fund the government. Such an outcome could bitterly disappoint voters and cause yet more uproar in the unsettled House.
"You turn on the TV and you hear all these guys — 'Republican Party in disarray. Turmoil in Washington.' — I don't think that's the case," Farenthold told around 50 voters who turned out early Thursday at a quirky coffee house and used bookstore in Wharton, southwest of Houston. "I think Kevin (McCarthy) did the country and the Republican conference in Congress a huge favor. He stepped back and gave us time to have a discussion."
People in attendance asked Farenthold why Republicans didn't shut down the government to get what they want. Boehner "came out and said, 'I'm not going to shut the government no matter what.' That makes him a really crappy negotiator," Farenthold replied. "We need somebody who is a better negotiator."
In fact, House Republicans did force a 16-day partial government shutdown two years ago in an attempt to upend Obama's health care law. It didn't work, but that hasn't dampened the appetite for confrontation among some in the GOP, including the hardline House Freedom Caucus that pushed Boehner out.
Farenthold is not a Freedom Caucus member but shares its perspective on some issues. Voters want a speaker "who doesn't cave. They saw Boehner as giving into the Democrats and not fighting for conservative principles. They want a fighter," Farenthold said in an interview after his session at Milam Street Coffee Shop.
One man in attendance, 63-year-old Mike Harbaugh of Wharton, a Navy veteran, urged working together without retreating from GOP values.
"There's a way that Reagan did it. You compromise without compromising your principles," Harbaugh said, referring to former President Ronald Reagan. "Don't ask me how he did, but he did it and it can be done."
Voters' comments also revealed a disconnect with the focus in Washington on Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republicans' 2012 vice presidential nominee who's widely seen as the best candidate for speaker. Ryan has repeatedly declined to try for the job, but he is reluctantly reconsidering under pressure from GOP leaders. Ryan currently is home in Janesville, Wisconsin, during this week's congressional recess.
The Freedom Caucus is backing another candidate, Florida Rep. Daniel Webster, and a half-dozen or more other lawmakers are weighing the job, including three Texans, Reps. Bill Flores, Michael McCaul and Michael Conaway.
Farenthold, who said he could support any of the Texans who may run for the post, said his voters are divided on Ryan, and a number have even suggested bringing in someone who is not in Congress to serve in the speaker's chair, second in line to the presidency. Such an approach is allowed by the Constitution but not widely viewed as feasible.
"I don't think anybody outside of the House politically stands a good chance, but I'm not writing anybody off," Farenthold told one Wharton voter who asked about that possibility.
"There has not been one name that has stood out," he said later. Bur Farenthood said his constituents are largely glad for a chance at new blood. "Everybody is happy Kevin McCarthy dropped out. Nobody has said, 'Oh, doggone it. Too bad Kevin isn't in.' "
Werner reported from Washington.