Three back-bench House freshmen are gaining martyr status among conservative activists after they were "purged" from committees for what they say is a matter of sticking to their principles on tough votes.
But some of their colleagues say the trio got yanked by the Republican Steering Committee, a committee that includes Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy, because they're jerks -- or worse.
In an interview with POLITICO, one member of the Steering Committee called the trio "the most egregious a--holes" in the House Republican Conference.
The argument: This went beyond voting records. The members who were booted made life harder for other Republicans by taking whacks at them in public for supporting the team, according to Republican sources familiar with the Steering Committee's decision.
The members booted are Justin Amash of Michigan, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and David Schweikert of Arizona.
In a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Study Committee Wednesday, Amash and Huelskamp argued that they were unfairly targeted for their conservative voting records, complaining that the leadership used a "secret scorecard" to rate their loyalty.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a conservative who is close to party leaders, told them that "the a--hole factor" came into play in the Steering decision.
"He said that it had nothing to do with their voting record, a scorecard, or their actions across the street (meaning fundraising)," Westmoreland spokeswoman Leslie Shedd told POLITICO. "It had to do with their inability to work with other members, which some people might refer to as the a--hole factor."
Shedd said her boss didn't intend to call anyone a name and acknowledged later to her that "perhaps he should have said obstinate factor instead and wanted me to reiterate that he did not and would not call another member of Congress an a--hole."
Huelskamp called it a "typical backroom deal." When asked why other conservatives didn't suffer the same fate, he said "ask John Boehner, he's the one in the room. Ask Kevin McCarthy, he's the one with the scorecard."
McCarthy, who was in Bakersfield Thursday to be with his mother, who had surgery, told The Californian:
"When I was in school, I thought I was a good point guard for our basketball team, but my coach said that I was more effective for the team as a forward. That's the way that I look at our committees.
"We have strong and talented conservatives in Congress -- and now more than ever we have to make sure that everyone is in the best place to fight for our principles. The committee assignments were made as a result of Steering Committee discussions about how we all can be most effective."
He also referred to a letter Speaker Boehner sent to the booted Republicans saying there was "no scorecard or other single criteria used to determine committee assignments."
"The purge" has gained mythic status in conservative circles, a sign to some that Republican leaders are so detached from the base that they are anxious to punish anyone who points it out.
The fight has obscured an important shift in insider House politics, as these were the first members pulled off committees as punishment for political or personality reasons in nearly two decades. Even Tom DeLay, the fearsome majority leader known for hardball tactics, drew the line there.
By exacting retribution, party leaders sent a strong message to the Republican rank and file that they won't tolerate members of the conference attacking each other in public. That's a welcome message for some lawmakers who had urged leaders to attach consequences to working against the goals of the party.
The narrative picked up steam not only among conservative activists, including the Club for Growth, but also in the mainstream media. The Washington Post published a story Wednesday suggesting that Boehner's hand has been strengthened in fiscal cliff negotiations because cowed freshmen aren't standing up to him this time around. The three main lawmakers booted from their committees have done rounds of TV interviews, and Schweikert wrote about the episode in The Washington Times this week.
Republicans who side with leadership note that plenty of conservatives kept their committee posts, chairmanships and subcommittee chairmanships. They also point to the elevation of iconoclastic conservative Mick Mulvaney to the Financial Services panel as evidence that ideology wasn't the key determinant in the decision-making process.
One place where the conservatives are clearly right: Party leaders did prepare a list of members' votes for consideration when they made committee assignments for all members of the conference. The spreadsheet, which the conservatives call a "secret scorecard," is no more sinister than a compilation of public records. But it has become a central point of contention, as the lawmakers who lost out have demanded that leadership turn it over.
Ironically, a leading force in promoting the cause of the purged conservatives is the anti-tax Club for Growth, which compiles scorecards and spends millions of dollars each cycle to try to oust moderates in Republican primaries.
Amash and Huelskamp were plucked from the Budget Committee after having voted against Rep. Paul Ryan's budget blueprint, which is considered to be something of a holy document by many fiscal conservatives. Ryan, who sits on the Steering Committee, hasn't raised a stink, and it's unlikely that they would have been removed if he had fought for them.
Schweikert and Jones were taken off Financial Services, where Jeb Hensarling, a former head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is the new chairman. Hensarling argued for retaining them, one source told POLITICO.
It has been years since anyone lost a committee assignment for anything other than a breach of legal or ethical standards. The last similar case came eight years ago, when Rep. Chris Smith, then the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, was denied another term with the gavel after repeated run-ins with then-Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
But for months, the Steering Committee members and other lawmakers have been discussing whether recalcitrance -- or sabotage -- should be punished by the loss of a committee assignment, according to GOP sources. The panel, which is headed by Boehner, includes a cross-section of other party leaders, committee chairmen and representatives from several regions of the country. It is responsible for picking which committees each Republican member serves on and selecting chairmen.
Part of the reason for the talk of stripping committee assignments is that earmarks have been banned. Without that carrot, the stick of conditional committee service has been an increasingly appealing tool to foster unity.
"The guys who are taking heat for taking tough votes back home don't understand why there aren't consequences for people who don't do the same thing," explained one leadership aide.
-- Californian government editor Christine Bedell contributed to this report.