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So far, Rep. Roskam not derailed by ethics flap, break from party leaders on Syria

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam 2012. File Pho| Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam in 2012. File Photo | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:51AM

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) has increasingly stepped into the spotlight over the last several months; as a searing critic of the Obama Administration’s handling of the IRS scandal, as a vocal opponent to the new health care law and as a proponent for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform.

Last week, the U.S. House Chief Deputy Whip from suburban Chicago made news again on diverging fronts – he stood apart from party leadership saying he was a “no” vote on use of military force in Syria — but also was hit with the unwelcome announcement that a House ethics panel would not drop a probe into a 2011 trip he took to Taiwan.

Still, Roskam retained backing from House Speaker John Boehner to continue as the fourth highest-ranking member in the U.S. House — the same position once held by Denny Hastert before he rose to Speaker — and Roskam remains on the politically powerful House Ways & Means Committee. This summer, Roll Call named Roskam among the top potential contenders for speaker, reporting “he has an understanding of campaigns that few in the House can rival.”

GOP political operatives in Illinois say Roskam remains a Republican to bet on.

Articulate and ambitious, Roskam, 52, of Wheaton, is known for deeply held conservative views, yet is consistently described as the antithesis of the knee-jerk flamethrower.

Roskam cut his political teeth as an Illinois state lawmaker who quickly developed a reputation for being quick on his feet and a powerful debater.

“He is one of the most talented orators who’s come out of Springfield,” said Illinois House Minority Leader-elect Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs). “He didn’t reach this position by luck. He didn’t fall into it. John Boehner knows talent when he sees it. Peter is one of the most talented members of Congress.”

A onetime congressional aide said Roskam matured between the time he made a failed primary challenged to then-U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert to his 2006 victory against “celebrity candidate” Tammy Duckworth. Roskam campaigned vigorously and ultimately successfully against Duckworth at a time when she had some powerful Democratic forces backing her.

When it came to a decision on Syria, Roskam’s office said the congressman went above and beyond the typical research in forming his opinion on a military strike. Besides the Sept. 9 classified briefing from National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials, he reached out to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren; Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA as well as former President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Cohen and John Bolton, U.N. Ambassador under President George Bush, according to Roskam’s office.

The congressman checked in with family members of soldiers currently serving in the Middle East before ultimately deciding a military strike was the wrong path.

While numerous polls show that’s a view shared by the public it did depart from the positions of Boehner, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) as well as U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

“I had a high degree of respect for how Congressman Roskam approached it,” said Deborah Rickert, of Operation Support our Troops, based out of Naperville. Rickert, who has two sons active in the military, says she asked the congressman to consider what the goal of an air strike would be and whether it would be achieved under what Obama proposed. “He asked great questions. He really wanted to hear what people thought.”

For now, Congress is holding off on a vote in favor of forging a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis by working through its ally, Russia.

In an interview with the Sun-Times last week, Roskam said he had “low expectations” of the Russians.

Still: “I think it needs to be seriously considered and seriously engaged,” he said. Roskam, who is not known for pulling his punches when it comes to the president, conceded the Syria situation was a difficult one but put some of the blame on how President Barack Obama has handled it.

“Part of the difficulty is he approached this as foreign policy based on personality,” the congressman said. “He’s approached this assuming his personality is able to move nations and world events. When it all comes down to it, it doesn’t move armies.”

As far as the trip to Taiwan, Roskam argues his office has remained transparent, asking for ethics vetting ahead of time and then releasing documents to the media earlier in the summer. A House panel opted against taking more aggressive investigative action yet didn’t close the matter.

At issue is how Roskam’s $25,652 trip was funded — an investigative panel had previously concluded there was “substantial reason to believe” that Roskam accepted payment for the trip “from an impermissible source.” Roskam traveled to Taiwan with his wife at a time when his daughter was teaching there.

“I just view this as a process. We disclosed everything in July,” Roskam told the Sun-Times last week. “It was obviously a trip that was approved ahead of time by the ethics committee. We complied with every rule, regulation, statute, we’ve been completely cooperative.”

It remains to be seen how much the ethics probe may or may not tarnish the congressman.

One key Republican operative dismissed it as nonsense.

“The ethics investigation is stupid,” says Ron Gidwitz, an Illinois GOP donor and organizer. “He cleared it with the ethics committee before he took the trip.”

Gidwitz said Roskam continues to receive Republican backing.

“He’s not a knee-jerk conservative who wants purity at the expense of practicality and getting something done,” Gidwitz said. “Here’s a guy who knocked on maybe every door in his district. Certainly if he didn’t get them all, he got most of them. He worked his tail off because he wanted that job. He’s worked his tail off ever since.”


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