U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma)

Shutdown Fallout: Chickasaw Cole Not Ready to Be Speaker of the House

Rob Capriccioso


U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), tells Indian Country Today Media Network that despite his increasing national presence on issues of the day like the budget, sequestration, and Syria, he is not sure he wants to be Speaker of the House if the opportunity arises.

“I am very happy with what I’m doing now,” Cole, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, said in an interview in the days leading up to the ongoing federal government shutdown when asked if he wanted to be the top House leader. “I learned a long time ago to never say never, but it doesn’t seem particularly likely for me.”

Still, Cole said he wants to continue to move up the leadership ladder, especially on the House Appropriations Committee where he now sits, to advocate for the policies he believes in, including increased funding for Indian country. “I like the freedom that I have right now, and being Speaker is a really tough job,” he added.

Cole has been a close ally to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) during the shutdown, which began October 1 and continues on, harming tribal health services, taking paychecks away from thousands of Indian affairs workers, and usurping the federal trust responsibility to tribes. He has pushed the GOP leadership to be more moderate than the conservative tea party members of his chamber who insisted on tying a delay of Obamacare to the continuing resolution, which is what shut the government down because the Democratic Senate and White House would not agree to those provisions. Throughout much of September, he said a shutdown would be disastrous to the Republican Party, but he ultimately voted in favor of a continuing budget resolution that would delay implementation of the federal health-care law for a year and eliminate a tax on medical devices.

RELATED: Government Shutdown Frustrates Tribal Leaders

“I feel sorry for John Boehner every day,” Cole told ICTMN. “I like him a lot, but he’s got a tough job. I sit at the leadership table, and sometimes that’s a good place to effect policy from, sometimes it’s not.”

Cole noted that Boehner initially released a clean continuing resolution proposal without the contentious Obamacare provisions, but House tea party members would not let him bring it up for a vote. “He had people yelling at him that it was not good enough,” Cole said.

Without the revolt of tea partiers toward its more moderate leadership, Cole would have been a likely contender to run for the speakership position one day, say Indian-focused political insiders. Elected in 2003, he’s already an elder in the House, given its high turnover rate lately, and he’s currently a member of the House’s vote-counting whip team. But the Republican Party seems increasingly keen on alienating consensus builders like Cole.

The mainstream media has been taking more note of Cole’s views; the representative has been interviewed on CNN, MSNBC, Politico and in multiple print outlets in the past month alone about his views as a House Republican leader. “He served as a bridge between the two parties during last year’s fiscal negotiations, when he urged fellow Republicans to accept higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans,” The New York Times wrote in a Q&A piece with Cole, published September 6.

“Representative Cole has been a rising star in the Republican Party, there is no doubt,” said one tribal lobbyist who asked not to be identified due to ongoing work on Capitol Hill. “But on the House side, the party is leaving him behind. And he isn’t even a moderate. He’s pretty conservative, but apparently not conservative enough for the tea party.”

All along, the congressman has been friendly to Indian country, and he has never shied away from talking about his tribal citizenship. In the past year alone, he pushed against House opposition to ultimately achieve a reauthorization of a Violence Against Women Act with new pro-tribal sovereignty provisions, and he’s helped restore funding to Indian programs that the White House wanted cut. He’s also been a vocal opponent of the Redskins football team name, which is widely considered racist.

Cole believes that support for Indian issues “should always be bi-partisan,” and he said he has many friends across the aisle that he regularly works with on tribal issues. “We have to find common ground to make good things happen,” he said.