Kline emerges as GOP spokesman

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2009 - 8:16 AM

The Second District congressman is using his leadership position to step into the Capitol Hill limelight as House Republicans intensify their attacks on the administration

Rep. John Kline

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON

Months into his fourth term in Congress, in the midst of a Washington controlled by Democrats, Rep. John Kline has found his voice among the Republican leadership in the U.S. House.

While fellow Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann may be the state's most outspoken Republican on Capitol Hill and cable TV, Kline has quietly solidified a favored spot in the mainstream of the party's conservative leadership. That's handed him a new platform, in this age of extreme partisanship, for expanding his arsenal in Washington's war of words.

House Republican leaders chose Kline in June to be the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, an influential panel that has had its hands on White House initiatives on health care, education and union organizing rules. Eventually the committee will work out an overhaul for No Child Left Behind.

That committee assignment has given Kline a platform for criticizing the Obama administration's health care proposal. Although the Democratic majority had enough votes to push it through the committee, that didn't happen without a full-throated protest from Kline, who put it bluntly: "This draft legislation, as far as I can tell, fails to address many of the structural flaws at the root of our current crisis."

The appointment has positioned him to work with House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, a close ally and admirer of Kline. "From his involvement with critical pension reforms in 2005 to his tireless advocacy for special-education funding, his leadership on the committee's issues made him a natural choice when the post opened up earlier this year," Boehner said.

Along with the change in status, the 61-year-old retired Marine inherited more staff and another press shop. It wasn't long before he unleashed a new brand of ramped-up rhetoric.

The once-reserved congressman almost immediately accused Democrats of "capitalizing on a global financial collapse to press a partisan agenda" for student loans. He lashed out at the Democratic health care proposal, saying, "It's been done like we've done everything else in this [session of] Congress, where the speaker said, 'We won. We'll write the bill.'"

The news releases have come almost daily, with Kline accusing Democrats of looking to pass a "1,018-page monstrosity" and "orchestrating a full government takeover of our classrooms and communities."

Broader GOP plan

This new, more aggressive image is emblematic of an effort across the Republican Party to present a more unified opposition to Democratic initiatives.

Kline's committee spokeswoman, Alexa Marrero, described it as providing "principled opposition and positive alternatives."

"That is a change for him because he usually is not one of the more visible people in Congress," said David Schultz, a political analyst and professor at Hamline University. Schultz said Kline can effectively lean right because he represents a fairly safe -- and conservative -- district in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities.

Kline's voting record has always been reliably conservative, and this session he's voting with his party 98 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. But the new role has also brought him into close contact with Republican leaders who chart the course for the party, particularly Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

"He has talked about this a little bit, where he has not only the higher-profile role publicly but also within the leadership, within the House," Marrero said. "I think members on both sides are getting to know him a little bit more and looking to him to really be shaping the agenda more."

The congressman and his staff say his positions on the issues haven't changed, though the volume of words has increased -- especially on health care and higher education.

Kline said in a recent interview that he is "under encouragement from leadership to get out there and talk about the issues." But, he added, so are many others.

"I don't look at it as trying to make the issues sharper, although I'm sure that's what's happening," he said.

A larger portfolio

Other Republicans in Congress increasingly view Kline as an emerging leader on their side of the aisle, said Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

While some have speculated that Kline's higher profile is part of an attempt to seek a leadership role in the party, his deputy chief of staff, Angelyn Shapiro, dismisses that suggestion. She said the new position "came about rather surprisingly." Kline had considered seeking the [committee] leadership job, she added, but he only "entered the process full force" after being encouraged by colleagues. Given his lack of seniority -- there were several more senior Republicans on the committee -- Kline seemed an unlikely candidate.

Coming out of a military background (he once carried the "football" of nuclear missile launch codes for President Ronald Reagan and was a military adviser to President Jimmy Carter), Kline had seemed destined to carve out a niche on the Armed Services Committee. It is now clear his portfolio will be much broader.

Dan Hofrenning, a professor of political science at St. Olaf College, said the move indicates Kline has reached a more influential phase in his congressional career.

"Kline is at a point where he's moved out of the rookie stage and is trying to establish his persona," Hofrenning said. "It looks like it's going to be something different than the role taken by either Bachmann or [Jim] Ramstad -- that is, he's neither the moderate nor the strident social conservative. And it looks like he's going to work more in tandem with the House leadership, and that's interesting."

Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.

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