Lungren Gets Debate With Boehner

Three days after he announced his insurgent bid for House Republican Leader and two days before the vote by GOP lawmakers, Rep. Dan Lungren (R.-Cal.) got what he wanted most next to a victory on Wednesday: a debate before the House Republican Conference between himself and the man he is challenging, Ohio Rep. and present House Minority Leader John Boehner.

A spokesman for Lungren called last night and said that, after insisting rules did not permit such a debate, “Mr. Boehner called Mr. Lungren and has agreed to debate him before the Conference on Wednesday morning at 8:30, before the vote for Leader.”

Earlier in the day, Lungren had called to tell me “I want a full, open, and robust debate before our colleagues so that they can see what we’re made of.  John said he doesn’t believe the rules permit this.  Strictly speaking, he’s correct.  But we could make special arrangements to permit a presentation before the Conference by the two candidates for leader.  Or we could postpone the vote instead of having it two days from now.  Right now, Members get back Monday, vote on the rules, and then we select leaders the next day.”

Boehner thereupon had a change of heart and the challenger has the debate he sought.

At 62 (“62 years young!  Got it?” he joked), Dan Lungren hardly seems the picture of a conservative outsider challenging the “Establishment.”  The son of Richard Nixon’s White House physician, Lungren represented a Southern California district from 1978-88, served two terms as California’s attorney general and then waged a losing bid for governor in 1998.  Six years later, he roared back to Congress by winning a Sacramento-area district—thus making Lungren one of the few lawmakers in history to have represented two different districts in Congress.

The California conservative explained that he had not intended to challenge Boehner, for whom he had voted as GOP Leader when the Ohio man was first elected two years ago.  But, Lungren added, “I felt that after a loss of fifty seats in two successive elections, we needed a change in the House.”:  He had planned to back Rep. Paul Ryan (R.-Wisc.) for Leader because the Wisconsin lawmaker, in Lungren’s words, “is the kind of conservative Newt Gingrich and I recruited when we started the Conservative Opportunity Society in the House more than two decades ago.”

Lungren said he is running because “we need to restore the vision and strategy that the COS had.”  The young conservative swashbucklers led by Gingrich, Lungren, former Rep. Bob Walker (Pa), and others challenged House Democratic leaders on issues ranging from spending to foreign policy to “the liberal welfare state.”

“Liberal vs conservative — that was the theme in every debate we had,” Lungren told me, recalling how that type of clear difference between Democrats and Republicans has been severely dimmed over the last decade.  He agreed that George W. Bush had lost the spending issue for Republicans and recalled how he told the President just that — that he didn’t veto enough spending measures (“But I threatened to veto a lot” is what Lungren said the President’s response was).  The leadership challenger also recalled how after House Republicans made a deal with President Clinton on the budget in 1998, “we lost badly in the midterm elections that year and that was because the turnout among our people was depressed.”

Maintaining that he would have probably voted against the prescription drug bill of 2001 (“unless you  could have separated the aspects of it that allowed for competition in the drug industry”) and would also have opposed the No Child Left Behind federal education program “in the form that it was passed in,” Lungren said that Republicans in the House  have to get back to their conservative roots — as they did in the days of the COS.

Although old friend Gingrich has not talked to him yet, Lungren said another veteran of those days in the House called and offered to do “anything I can to help.  That’s Jack Kemp.  Is he conservative enough for you?”

“Look, I know it’s late and I’m a long shot,”  Lungren concluded, “But I can’t sit here and be part of the ‘Coalition of the Comfortable.’”