DES MOINES, Iowa – U.S. Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham represent adjoining congressional districts in Iowa, and are devout Republicans. Yet in philosophy and style, they couldn’t be further apart on how they approach fiscal matters and fight for their positions.
Chalk it up to different motivations.
King, uncompromising and feisty, has comfortably won six consecutive terms in his vastly rural, socially conservative district in northwestern Iowa. He wants to get rid of President Barack Obama’s health care law so badly he’s willing to keep the government shut down for a few weeks.
“There’s no reason not to take a stand,” King said.
Latham is an understated, business-like friend of party leadership who has withstood a series of tough Democratic challenges in a district that includes Iowa’s largest metropolitan area. He says he could settle for simply changing the health care law he opposes but argues a lengthy shutdown isn’t the way to do that.
“My overwhelming concern is on the debt,” Latham said. “That’s more of an issue.”
The crusader and the pragmatist symbolize the GOP’s national quarrel about the party’s best way forward after losing consecutive presidential elections: hold fast to principle at all cost or demonstrate effectiveness by working with the opposition.
While they often have voted in lockstep to repeal health care or eliminate its money, the two parted ways on the final House vote before the government shutdown Tuesday.
Latham backed the House GOP leadership in a scaled-back challenge to the health care law last Monday evening. King sided with a dozen Republicans who include the health law’s fiercest opponents in voting against the measure. It would have allowed a one-year delay in the requirement that all individuals obtain health insurance, but the proposal did not go far enough toward undermining the law for King.
King has little incentive to work across the aisle. Most of his constituents are very conservative and reward him each at election time for sticking firm to his principles of limited government.
Latham’s district is more politically balanced, a battleground for Democrats after years of redistricting to make it more competitive in elections.
King, 64, is a former small business owner; his family ran an excavation company. He came up through the state Senate as a hard-line conservative before carrying those values to Congress, where he has championed causes the far right covets.
In 2004, he helped George W. Bush become the first Republican presidential nominee to carry Iowa in 20 years, running up vote totals in his district by airing radio ads aimed at protecting the federal ban on gay marriage. It’s become a King signature issue.
Recently, the blunt-spoken King told a group of business owners from Iowa, where there is a workforce shortage, that he was opposed to letting people stay in the United States if they were in the country illegally. He was the first to sponsor legislation in 2010 calling for the full repeal of the health care law.
King’s motto for just about every issue could be the way he describes his position in the latest Capitol Hill impasses: “All we have to do is insist, and we win.”
Reflecting the views of a vocal core of House Republicans and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, King calls the shutdown a short-term hardship compared to what he describes as allowing a deeply flawed health law to take hold.
“Even if there is a political price to pay ... we’ll recover,” King says. “But we’ll never recover from ‘Obamacare.’”
Among those who agree with him is Peggy Staley of Charter Oak, in the GOP heart of King’s district. She says Republicans “should pull out all the stops.” She describes King as “having guts” and adds: “It’s a principled stance and we need about 500 more of them.”
Living just three counties southeast of King, Latham has honed a serious, albeit wry demeanor during a political journey that began 20 years ago.
The former family seed-company executive known to frequent local agribusiness events first won election to the House in the GOP wave of 1994. Since then, he has sided regularly with GOP leadership, but with a pragmatic tone.
Latham, 65, is a reliable Republican vote, but has crossed party lines and is routinely rated by outside groups as less conservative than King. For instance, in 2007 and 2008, he voted in with majority Democrats to override Bush’s veto of measures expanding Medicare and health insurance for low-income children. King voted to uphold the vetoes.
Latham opposes the health law. But rather than try to overturn a measure that’s the law of the land, he sees opportunity to make major revisions.
“The American people are going to speak up and there may be an opportunity to do away with the health care bill or reform it to the point where it may actually work,” Latham said.
“Some would argue to let it go into place then people would be outraged by the next election,” he added. “But it’s going to be very difficult to change it.”
Still, Latham says he’s more focused on the on the national debt, specifically the Oct. 17 expiration of the federal government’s borrowing power.
It’s a stance that echoes House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, a close friend.
Latham’s approach makes sense to Chris McClendon, a suburban Des Moines Republican and small business owner.
“He’s more pragmatic,” McClendon said. “’Obamacare’ is going to be there whether we like it or not. Maybe it’s better to finesse it, change it and make it better district.”