WASHINGTON – In a service that contrasted the state of today’s Congress with the House of Representatives Tom Foley left nearly two decades ago, past and current political leaders extolled the former Spokane speaker’s ability to see another person’s point of view, to compromise and to get things done.
Republicans as well as Democrats praised the late congressman and ambassador, repeating stories he shared or advice he gave about honoring public service. And one leader who acknowledged he didn’t know Foley personally but admired his reputation said it was time to emulate him.
“Now, more than ever, America needs public servants who are willing to place problem-solving ahead of politics,” President Barack Obama said. “We are sent here to do what’s right, and sometimes doing what’s right is hard. And it’s not free. But it is the measure of leadership.”
Former Rep. Bob Michel, R-Ill., who was minority leader while Foley was speaker, said the two “jousted politically, but underlying everything was the faith and trust we had in each other.” They met once a week, alternating between his and Foley’s office.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he and Foley often disagreed: “He favored a government a little more robust than me.”
It’s the nature of politics that parties will disagree, McConnell added. But that shouldn’t keep them from talking.
Foley, 84, died Oct. 18 of complications from a stroke. The Capitol memorial service was one of two planned for him. A Spokane service, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at St. Aloysius Church on the Gonzaga University campus.
Tuesday’s memorial service was held in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, a round, domed room surrounded by marbled columns where the larger-than-life carved images of great leaders from previous eras line the walls. Mixed in with the statues for the service was an oil portrait of Foley.
The Spokane native was a statesman like the men and women carved in stone or cast in bronze, Michel said. “His spirit will dwell here forever.”
If that’s true, it may ease any rancor in a Capitol still healing from a confrontation between Congress and Obama that led to a partial government shutdown and a contentious showdown over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. That ended less than two weeks ago, and efforts to head off a repeat of that deadlock begin in earnest today as House and Senate leaders meet in a special committee to try to craft a long-term budget compromise by mid-December.
Their discussions will take place as political analysts speculate on who might be more damaged for the 2014 elections: Republicans by the shutdown or Democrats by problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Some national polls suggest a majority of Americans would throw everyone out of Congress, if they could.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who served in the House with Foley, said after the service that Michel’s remarks put “an exclamation point” on the need for strong leadership from a time when civility was admired and working together was a goal.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican who now holds Foley’s former congressional seat, also said later that it’s important to reflect on a person who was committed to his principles but also to finding solutions.
Some elected officials may denigrate government service, but Foley believed in the Congress and believed the institution could do good, former Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., a longtime friend, told the crowd. He saw government as a noble profession, said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash.
He didn’t criticize his opponents, said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.: “I never heard this good man say a bad word about anyone.”
He worked for compromises, but he wasn’t afraid to take tough votes, several said.
Michel recalled the resolution to give President George H.W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq in 1991. Foley was opposed, as were many Democrats in the House. But Foley agreed to bring it to a vote, not knowing which side would win. He himself took to the floor to argue against it, closing off what Michel said was one of the most spirited debates in history. In the end, the resolution passed by a small margin, and Foley’s side lost.
“But the House demonstrated to the world that it was truly a deliberative body,” Michel said.
Former President Bill Clinton said he often sought Foley’s advice after being elected in 1992, and the then-speaker was instrumental on such landmark legislation as the Family and Medical Leave Act and AmeriCorps. But there was one issue on which Clinton said he didn’t listen to Foley: the assault-weapon ban.
Clinton badly wanted the military-style semi-automatic weapons restricted, but Foley warned him Democrats would pay a heavy price.
“ ‘There will be blood on the floor,’ he told me. ‘Some of us will not survive,’ ” Clinton recalled.
When Clinton tried to assure him that the public anger would subside, Foley said that might well be true by 1996, when Clinton faced re-election, but not before House members would run later that year.
The House voted to add the ban to an omnibus crime bill, which passed.
“I thought he was wrong, but he was right,” Clinton said. That November, so many Democrats lost re-election that Republicans took control for the first time in 40 years. One of those ousted was Foley.
“But Tom Foley was a tough guy,” Clinton added. “He knew making tough decisions was inevitable, and he paid the price.”
After losing the election, Foley returned to the House to pass unfinished legislation to establish the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. He wrote Clinton a letter about the loss in the Eastern Washington district he had represented for 30 years.
“He was dying inside, heartbroken and he still showed up for work,” said Clinton, who later appointed Foley the ambassador to Japan. “He gave his life to our country. I hope his dreams have all come true.”