WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Jim Jordan is a former championship wrestler treading a delicate political line, pushing GOP leaders toward the goals of his rebel conservative group as the party tries to prove to the nation it can govern.
"I don't want shutdowns, I've never advocated for that, we won't want that," the four-term Ohio congressman said in a recent interview. Instead, Jordan said, he wants to nudge GOP leaders away from compromising conservative principles on federal spending, immigration, health care and more.
Later he added, "I like to use the term 'we' because I'm a member of the Republican Conference."
It's a reality with which House Speaker John Boehner and his allies have struggled the past four years, keeping his fractious and growing GOP caucus unified. Fellow Ohioan Jordan has played central roles in some of the thorniest Republican fights, insisting on conservative principals even when doing so has helped bring lawmaking to a virtual halt, closed much of the government and led the public to blame the GOP.
Ten weeks into the new Republican-controlled Congress, Jordan, 51, is leading the latest group of rebels — the House Freedom Caucus — into an unrelenting battle for control of the GOP. Jordan says the group stands at 30-40 members and he calls it a "more agile" version of the 170-member Republican Study Committee, which Jordan used to chair.
The Freedom Caucus is focused on the Republicans' answer to President Barack Obama's proposed budget, poised to push GOP leaders rightward and away from lifting spending limits on, for example, the Pentagon in a time of budget deficits.
Republicans, even those who like and respect Jordan for being a team player on many issues, are watching warily.
"Look, we need to figure out how to responsibly stop the president from going around the Congress and the American people," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who gives Jordan high marks for constituent service and says their families socialize. "But (we) have to figure out how to address it in a more effective way. Clearly this last exercise was not successful."
Portman was referring to the recent fight over immigration and funds for Homeland Security.
Jordan and the rebels led the call among conservatives to defeat funding for the department unless it reversed Obama's effort to spare millions of immigrants from deportation. On a three-week extension, 52 Republicans stunned Boehner and his leadership team by voting no. A rebel whoop rose — and a week later, Boehner responded by joining forces with Democrats to push through a bill that met none of the rebels' conditions, until Sept. 30.
The backlash against the conservatives was brutal, personal, and prolonged.
"My Republican colleagues and I have a critical and extremely short window of time to prove to the American people that we can govern responsibly," Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho said Monday in a statement. The Republicans who voted against the "clean" DHS bill, he said, "represent the most irresponsible, unrealistic and ineffective segment of our Republican caucus."
Boehner, Jordan's Ohio neighbor but many ideological miles apart, did not appreciate the hassle or the out-of-control image it portrayed.
"Just messy," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation. "And I'm not into messy."
The American Action Network, a nonprofit that includes Boehner allies on its board, fired a $400,000 warning against Jordan and other rebels during the DHS fight.
"Tell congressman Jim Jordan to fund homeland security," the announcer says in an ad designed to reach Jordan's district, among others. "Our safety must come first."
So what does Jordan want?
"My role is to do what I told the voters I was going to do, what I think the election was about in November," he says. "To try to work with like-minded colleagues to push things in a direction that I think are good for the country and consistent with the Constitution."
A longtime friend from Jordan's college wrestling days says the congressman is a pragmatist, not the ideologue many assume.
"I think he understands that he has to represent an ideological viewpoint but he also has to give and take a little," said David Goodspeed, an orthopedic surgeon in Madison, Wis. "He's a super-disciplined guy, and a super-competitive guy."
The defeat may have had the unintended consequence of creating more bipartisanship. Aides to top House Republicans and Democrats are negotiating a compromise to permanently revamp a law that annually threatens cuts in Medicare payments to doctors. More potential fights loom over agency budgets and foreign policy, for example.
In the interview, Jordan made clear that the group is here to stay. Their lone staffer began work on Monday. And the rebels are examining the array of budget and spending measures coming before Congress for opportunities to try again to roll back Obama's policy on immigration, as well as his signature health care law.
"I like to think that I can be helpful," he said, pointing out that many of his allies were involved in crafting strategy for the party ahead of the 2014 midterm elections when the GOP grabbed control of the Senate and a historic majority in the House.