Printed on: February 08, 2013

Labrador asked to 'back off'

By Dan Popkey
Idaho Statesman

Congressman Raul Labrador met last week with two Republicans in the Idaho House to explain his opposition to Gov. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's plan for a state-run online insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act.

Intervention on a legislative matter by a member of Congress is rare.

Coupled with Labrador's talk of challenging Otter in 2014, his Jan. 30 visit stirred considerable controversy – enough that House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, asked Labrador to back off.

"I have a large freshman class and they're trying to find their sea legs," Bedke said Wednesday. "I want them to develop into their own people and vote their consciences, not based on any influence that I put on them as speaker.

"By the same token, I don't want them to be persuaded because he's the congressman or Gov. Otter is the governor."

Requests last week and again Wednesday for comment from Labrador went unanswered.

Otter said he didn't lobby state lawmakers during his six years in Congress and objected to pressure from above when he served there and in the Idaho House.

As governor, Otter said he just provides facts.

"Anybody who's ever been in my office would tell you that what I have said is you have to vote your conscience," Otter said Wednesday.

But Otter refrained from criticizing Labrador.

"I'm not going to make a judgment," Otter said. "He's got his style, I've got mine."

But House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, an ally of Otter and Bedke on the insurance exchange proposal, was blunt. He said it was "inappropriate" for Labrador to "lobby or interject himself into the politics of the Legislature in any manner."

Wood continued: "You have to wonder why a member of Congress who has so many issues on his plate at the federal level would come back and start -- I don't know what the word is -- but start meddling in the affairs of the state Legislature. To me, that's almost like somebody that goes off to college and comes back to high school. I mean, you've graduated and gone on to bigger and better things. What are you doing back here?"

Wood, Bedke and Otter contend that a state exchange will save Idahoans money, run more smoothly and preserve Idaho jobs.

Labrador argues the state should continue to resist the Affordable Care Act, as have most states with GOP governors.

The two lawmakers Labrador jawboned -- Reps. Brandon Hixon of Caldwell and Luke Malek of Coeur d'Alene -- said there was no harm done and remain undecided.

"I didn't feel uncomfortable," Hixon said. "It wasn't to the extent where he was threshing about or anything, where he was grabbling me by the collar and saying, 'Hey, you need to pay attention to this!' He was very subtle in his approach and I didn't feel pressured at all."

Said Malek: "He took a position, but he wasn't encouraging me to take a position. I wouldn't say he was lobbying. It was just a mutual discussion. There's a lot of pros and cons."

Malek and Hixon, both 31, are the youngest in a historically large freshman class.

House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said the meetings were not intended to take advantage of their inexperience.

Crane said he chose Hixon and Malek to speak to his friend Labrador as promising lawmakers who would benefit from the experience. Labrador served in the Idaho House from 2006-10 before going to Congress.

"If I'm a freshman legislator and a congressman wants to meet me and say what's going on in Washington, D.C., and this is what I'm hearing around the state, to me that's a benefit," Crane said.

Crane said the matter has "been blown way out of proportion."

Malek said it didn't occur to him that Labrador was crossing a line.

"I'm certainly not the most wisened of legislators, so there may be a game I'm just not keen to. But it certainly didn't feel that way," he said.

Bedke said his conversation with Labrador was cordial and that the congressman acknowledged that point.

"There's a school of thought that there's a third option, no exchange," Bedke said. "I came away from the conversation with the understanding that we're stuck with an exchange, period."