The GOP Pushed Historically Unpopular Bills in 2017. One House Republican Consistently Resisted.

In a GOP increasingly driven by elites, Walter Jones is the only House Republican not in a blue state or swing district who voted against party priorities.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington. As President Trump argued about what he said to the family of a soldier killed in Niger, a North Carolina congressman was quietly doing what he's done more than 11,000 times: signing a condolence letter to that family and others. Republican Rep. Walter Jones began signing the letters to families in 2003 as penance for his 2002 vote supporting war in Iraq. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Republicans in Congress spent the year crafting historically unpopular legislation. First, they tried, tried, tried to pass health care reform, eventually giving up because the bills were so disastrous that even some Republicans could not get behind them. And then came the tax bill, which they passed just before Christmas even though a mere one-third of Americans said they supported the legislation, according to the political polling website FiveThirtyEight.

That the majority of Americans opposed the rewrite of the tax code did little to persuade GOP lawmakers to put on the brakes; just 12 of them voted “no,” and almost all of them were from blue states or swing districts. For instance, bill opponent Rep. Darrell Issa is from a California district that he won by less than 1 percent in the last election.

There was a single Republican opponent of the bill, however, who comfortably won his last election and is from a state that elected Trump in 2016. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., perhaps the last ideologically moderate Republican in the House, also voted against the health care overhaul Republicans proposed earlier this year. He is the only House Republican not serving in either a blue state or swing district who opposed both landmark GOP bills.

Jones faces no real threat of being defeated by a Democratic opponent, one factor that sometimes spurs Republicans to vote against their party. In 2016, he won re-election by almost 34 points. He does, however, face opposition from other Republicans.

Wake Forest University professor John Dinan, who studies North Carolina politics, told The Intercept that Jones’s vote was no surprise.

“Walter Jones has for some time now been a thorn in the side of Republican House leadership and has in a number of cases been unwilling to support the party’s consensus position on procedural votes and on the final substantive votes on key legislation,” Dinan said, pointing out that the House leadership removed Jones from the House Financial Services Committee in 2012. Jones was one of the only Republicans on Capitol Hill to support the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation passed under President Barack Obama, and he was the only House Republican to oppose repealing a key section of it this year.

“I’m all for tax reform, but it must grow the economy, not the debt. Unfortunately, the tax bill voted on today will be financed not by cutting spending elsewhere in the budget, but by adding $2 trillion to America’s debt,” Jones said in a statement following the tax vote. “Much of that will be borrowed from potential foreign adversaries like China, and then put on the backs of American taxpayers. That’s an additional $20,000 debt burden on every household in America. With federal debt already at $20 trillion, and deficit spending adding $666 billion to that debt just this past year alone, this is the wrong way to deliver the tax relief that the American people need.”

He delivered a similar statement after voting in opposition to the Republican health care bill, the American Health Care Act, in May:

Now in 2017, for reasons I cannot understand, instead of moving a bill to repeal Obamacare and replace it with reforms that will fix our broken health care system, the Washington Republican leadership jammed a bill through the House that does neither. Furthermore, the rushed, behind-closed-doors process they’ve used is shameful. Over the past several weeks, they cut deal after deal to secure members’ support, and then pushed the bill to the floor without a CBO score. As a result, no one has any idea how much those deals will cost the American taxpayers, or how they might affect the cost, quality, and availability of health insurance coverage for American families.

He also cited the human cost that his constituents would bear as well as strong opposition from his district. “There are many aspects of the bill that deeply trouble me because of their potential effects on eastern North Carolina and rural America,” Jones said, noting that 90 percent of his constituents who contacted him about the bill opposed it.

But Jones has not always been a dissenter among Republicans. He was one of the lawmakers who, in anger at French refusal to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq, asked the Capitol cafeteria to rename french fries to “freedom fries.”

His ardent support for the war, however, fell apart as it became clear that the government’s justification for the invasion of Iraq was mythological. And he has since become a critic of all American wars. He consistently votes against foreign military involvement, and in the past 14 years, he has penned 11,000 letters to families of the fallen — not just in his own district but all over the country.

While his party continues to lurch right on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is an opponent of Israel’s right-wing government, earlier this year calling for a settlement freeze.

Republican elites have taken note. In 2014, hedge fund industry executives and pro-Israel activists funded a primary challenger who came within five points of defeating Jones.

As one of the last Republicans on Capitol Hill willing to buck his party on issues of war, health care, and finance, some expect he will have a target on his back in the near future from the establishment of his party.

“It is no surprise, therefore, that Republicans, both in Washington, D.C. and in North Carolina, have been open to back other Republican primary candidates who might defeat Jones and be more willing to support the party on key policy priorities,” Dinan said. “A similar effort might well be made in the primary in 2018. These efforts resemble the successful effort to defeat Tim Huelskamp in a Kansas primary in 2016. Whether the efforts to defeat Jones in a 2018 primary prove any more effective is too soon to tell.”

Top photo: Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington.

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