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updated: 3/28/2011 6:27 PM

At the leadership table, Roskam keeps suburban focus

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  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam enters his Cannon House office before a meeting with Columbian Ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam enters his Cannon House office before a meeting with Columbian Ambassador to the United States, Gabriel Silva.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam gives an interview on CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam gives an interview on CNN in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Pete Legan, an IBM vice president of communications, left, meets with Rep. Peter Roskam in his D.C. office earlier this month.

       Pete Legan, an IBM vice president of communications, left, meets with Rep. Peter Roskam in his D.C. office earlier this month.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • IBM executive Pete Legan, left, meets with Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam in his office. Roskam's communications director, Daniel Conston, right, sits in on the meeting as well.

       IBM executive Pete Legan, left, meets with Chief Deputy Whip Peter J. Roskam in his office. Roskam's communications director, Daniel Conston, right, sits in on the meeting as well.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, of Wheaton, poses a question during a ways and means committee meeting in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The discussion was about the possibility of repealing the 1099 provision in the health care law.

       Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam, of Wheaton, poses a question during a ways and means committee meeting in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The discussion was about the possibility of repealing the 1099 provision in the health care law.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 

WASHINGTON -- A few rows deep on the right side of the House floor, Peter Roskam, Republican chief deputy whip and Illinois' 6th District representative, stands watching the electronic tally board, arms crossed over his navy suit jacket and red tie.

The votes are beginning to come in on legislation that will fund the government for two more weeks, cutting $4 billion from the federal budget and temporarily preventing a shutdown.

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In the GOP's war on spending, this is a key test -- not only of the House's battle with Senate Democrats over budget cuts, but of Roskam's work as a member of Republican leadership, guiding, educating and winning over members on important votes.

It is through hard work and relationship-building that Roskam got to this place, political observers say. And those qualities, they say, have Roskam poised for even greater power -- depending on his performance.

One of the congressmen he had to work to win over on this vote is Illinois' 8th District Rep. Joe Walsh of McHenry, a tea partyer who, with little campaign money and no help from the Republican Party, defeated incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean of Barrington, once thought to be unbeatable. Cutting the budget -- now -- was a key theme that propelled Walsh and many other tea party candidates into office, so compromise might seem out of the question.

Yet, Roskam was able to get his message through -- this time.

"That was a very tough vote for me," Walsh reflected the morning after the vote in his congressional office, elbows on his knees, fists balled up under his chin.

Walsh, one of the 87 members of the Republican class, said he's learning from Roskam "how to modulate my outspokenness to fit with the system. ... I do believe we're in a revolution. But then you talk to Peter Roskam, and he says, 'That's right, Joe. We are. But come here, here's what we need to do.'"

This particular approach may not be ideal, Roskam told reporters earlier in the week, but it's a necessary product of the situation House Republicans find themselves in.

"You don't have a Republican Senate," says former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who served as chief deputy whip from 1995 to 1999. "So you have to sometimes reach an agreement. Democrats may be the adversary, but the Senate was always the enemy."

As a wide margin of passage becomes evident, Roskam's body language becomes more fluid. He tosses his head back, clapping as he exchanges stories with colleagues who have gathered around him and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy on the floor.

Twice earlier in the day, Roskam conducted television interviews on the legislation from a gilded sunlit rotunda on the Capitol campus.

Waiting to go on camera, he tugs gently at each of the gold rings on his hands.

A staffer straightens the knot of his tie.

Swaying slightly forward and back on the balls of his feet, his ramrod posture reminiscent of his days as a varsity gymnast, Roskam reiterates to Fox News and CNN the same message: House Republicans have given Senate Democrats two offers, and the ball is now in their court to act.

The Wheaton attorney is increasingly a spokesman on national issues, popping up on nightly newscasts and Google alerts.

In just five years' time, Roskam has vaulted through the House ranks, now standing fourth in line behind Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and McCarthy.

While many in the outside world may have been surprised by Roskam's appointment to become McCarthy's right hand man in November, those walking the Capitol halls weren't.

"The conference, his colleagues, we're the ones who deemed him ready," said 19th District Rep. John Shimkus, one of the senior members of Illinois' delegation. "Kevin (McCarthy) picked him up, but Kevin couldn't afford to do that with someone who wasn't ready. Most of us knew that the pairing would be McCarthy/Roskam. They were tight last cycle. And so, there was no balking."

Roskam, from the beginning, has made a practice of studying up on members' backgrounds and various cross pressures.

"During his congressional orientation (in 2006), it was kind of telling," said former law partner Al Salvi of Wauconda. Roskam had memorized his colleagues' names, their wives' names and facts about their districts.

There is a sort of reverence used when Shimkus, Walsh and others talk about Roskam.

Like Hastert, Roskam has worked his way up to the Republican leadership table through relationship-building within and outside the party, strategic committee placement, and working behind the scenes to solidify and advance the GOP agenda.

In 2007, when Roskam arrived in Washington fresh off a six-year stint in the state Senate, Hastert -- who supported Roskam during his first congressional bid in 1998 -- helped him to get on the financial services committee. Two years later, Dan Mattoon, a veteran Washington lobbyist and political adviser, approached Roskam about trying to get on to the powerful ways and means committee, which is the oldest committee in Congress and the chief tax-writing body in the House.

"I said, 'Peter, we need an Illinoisan on ways and means. The key is you've got the aptitude. That committee, it's really a big deal.' It was such an important thing for him to do. Now he's in a great position not only to help the team but help sell Chicago. Every business entity touches ways and means."

The next summer, Roskam, together with McCarthy, led the America Speaking Out campaign, which collected voters' public policy ideas online and ultimately laid the foundation for Pledge to America, Republicans' congressional governing agenda.

Roskam, Mattoon said, is one of the GOP's best fundraisers. Instead of simply giving money to newer members for their campaigns, he goes in and helps them raise it, a task he's even more sought out for since his appointment.

Keeping up his relationships from his Springfield days have proved beneficial, too.

At last winter's GOP House Issues Conference, President Barack Obama, who worked with Roskam on death penalty legislation in the Illinois Senate, stopped to make a point upon spotting his old colleague. "Oh, Peter and I are old friends," the president told the crowd with a flash of a grin. "Peter and I have had many debates."

"Well, this won't be one," Roskam shot back.

In his new role, Roskam has been tested several times in recent weeks.

Two weeks before the vote, the House had, in the wee hours of the morning, passed a different piece of legislation cutting $61 billion from the budget.

There had been some internal griping about how the amount was arrived at, but Republicans, in the end, overwhelmingly supported the plan. And, aside from Evanston Democrat Jan Schakowsky, each member of Illinois' suburban delegation issued statements heralding the move.

This temporary measure was a tougher pill to swallow for some members, including Walsh, who voted for the legislation only after long talks with McCarthy and Roskam.

Just weeks before, the importance of those pre-vote discussions became all too clear, this time for what happens when enough groundwork hasn't been laid.

In mid-February, several GOP members broke from the party line on a vote on extending provisions of the Patriot Act, on the basis that they'd had concerns, but not enough time to make up their minds.

"There was no debate," said freshman 14th District Rep. Randy Hultgren, of Wheaton, one of 26 Republicans to vote "no." "I was frustrated with that, and voiced my frustration. Just in the business of everything I think (leaders) thought this was something that passed easily other years. And a few of us said, when it comes to the Constitution, and freedom, and this balance between freedom and security, we need to be careful, we need to take our time."

Roskam says that experience was "a helpful reminder that members need to know a great deal of detail. If they know the detail, they're going to get comfortable with the vote."

Before the Patriot Act was brought up a second time, GOP leaders brought the chairman of the judiciary committee, and the chairman of the intelligence committee to meetings with rank and file members. The legislation passed by a wide margin.

"Whipping" -- a term copied from British Parliament -- hints at punishment, public humiliation, even.

But those who work inside the Capitol describe the effort as an intensely personal process, a story purposely hidden from the news.

"You have to make sure what you say is confidential and what people tell you is confidential," Hastert said.

When Hastert was looking for a member to make a tough vote, former chief of staff Scott Palmer recalls, he'd use a tactic he'd employed years before, as a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School.

"I never, ever, saw Denny threaten anyone," said Palmer, of Aurora. "His most active thing would be to sit down, put that big coach's arm around your shoulder, and make a case for the legislation. Then he'd say 'Joe,' or 'Sally, I really need you.' You're not going to say no to that. It's like kicking the dog. You couldn't do it."

Hastert points out that "everyone has to assimilate their own style. He can't be me, and I can't be someone else."

Still, there are parallels between Hastert and Roskam. Along with their trust and relationship building, the representation of politically diverse suburban districts has worked to their advantage.

On national television appearances, at a ways and means committee hearing, and a news conference that week, Roskam notes what he heard back home.

"Whenever you talk about an issue, he brings it back to Wheaton," McCarthy said.

"If you're ever going to be the whip or communicate to other members, you first have to know the policy and you have to understand how it will affect people's districts. ... Peter's district is Americana."

Educating members, and making sure they have enough time to make decisions, will be a cornerstone of their efforts, both McCarthy and Roskam say. What began as "listening sessions" for GOP freshmen about upcoming votes has grown into meetings with senior House members.

"It's healthy for us to be able to say this is a deal breaker for me. Or this is what I want to see happen," Hultgren said.

And while technology contributes to efficiency -- BlackBerry and iPhone applications give members daily schedules and information on upcoming votes -- personal contact cannot be replaced, Roskam has learned that firsthand from watching Hastert.

"Congress is a place, if you're not careful, you sense it, that you can almost glance off," Roskam said. "But if you're intentional about trying to sit down with your colleagues and meet with them that's absolutely fascinating. With Denny, I sort of appreciated it from afar. But now that I'm in this responsibility, it's like anything else, it's like 'Ohhh. Now I get it.'"

This is his opportunity to seize, Palmer said.

"He's a young guy. He's got time. I'm a big believer if you do a good job, a really good job, the next opportunity will open up."

Former law partner and state House colleague Al Salvi has no doubt that Roskam will be ready.

"Peter has these little sayings. One of them is 'Finish well.' You don't want to start what you're doing and taper off. Focus on what you're doing and finish well."

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