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Meet the House Republican Who Compared Himself to the Flight 93 Heroes

Alex Wong/Getty

When this chapter of the Republican Party’s descent into radicalism is written, the representative quote may go not to Ted Cruz, who managed to say little memorable in his 21-hour talkathon, but to his fellow Texan, Rep. John Culberson. It was Culberson, a seven-term member from Houston, who, recounting how House Republicans voted Saturday to make a delay of Obamacare a condition for funding the government, declared, “The whole room: ‘Let’s vote!’ I said, like 9/11, ‘let’s roll!’”

Yes, in Culberson’s mind, holding hostage the federal government for the sake of denying health insurance to millions of the working poor (a disproportionate share of them Texans) is apparently sorta like heroically attempting to overcome terrorist hijackers armed with boxcutters, as the passengers aboard Flight 93 did on September 11, 2001 after one of them, Todd Beamer, uttered that succinct call to action. Culberson has quite the touch with historical analogy: It was he who declared last week that House Republicans should press forward with their lengthy list of demands for keeping the government funded regardless of whether Senate Democrats vowed to reject them: “Ulysses S. Grant used to say, ‘Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing.’ And that’s what the House is doing today, thank God.”

Together, these two pithy exclamations left me wanting to learn a bit more about Rep. Culberson. For one thing, since when was it considered kosher for a conservative Southerner to construct an analogy that compared him and his colleagues to the Yank side of the War of Northern Aggression?

Well, shockingly enough, it turns out that Culberson has quite the track record when it comes to straying outside the pale. A few highlights:

Birtherism. In 2009, Culberson co-sponsored H.R. 1503, which would have required all future presidential candidates to show their birth certificate when registering to run for the White House. When President Obama released his long-form certificate in the spring of 2011, Culberson saw it as a vindication of his own efforts: “H.R. 1503 was designed to prevent this question from arising in the future so we could focus on the important issues facing our nation.” Yes, of course: we wouldn’t want any silly distractions.

States’ rights. You don’t have to look far for this one: it’s in the first sentence of his official biography on his Web site: “As a fiscally conservative ‘Jeffersonian Republican,’ Congressman John Culberson is committed to Thomas Jefferson’s vision of limited government, individual liberty, and states’ rights. Simply put, John Culberson believes in ‘Letting Texans Run Texas.’” Given that this carries more than a whiff of Lone Star Nation revanchism, it may not surprise you to learn that Culberson leapt to the defense of Gov. Rick Perry when he seemed to flirt with secessionism in 2009: “Don't make too much of what Gov. Perry said,” Culberson told Chris Matthews. “He was just revved up and I think in the heat of the moment said something that he certainly didn't mean in his heart. [Texans are] patriotic Americans. No one wants Texas to secede.” Of course not – who ever would imagine such a thing.

Christianism. Culberson is chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies. In that role, he sprang into action in 2011 to punish cemetery officials for what he deemed was a lack of the “G” word at military funerals. From the Houston Chronicle:

The Houston congressman heading the panel with jurisdiction over the Houston National Cemetery vowed Wednesday to "zero out" the salary of the cemetery director to force her dismissal by the Department of Veterans Affairs in an escalating dispute over alleged religious censorship at burial services. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee panel that handles financing for the cemetery, said he would use the pending $78 billion military construction appropriations legislation to eliminate director Arleen Ocasio's salary starting Oct 1…

The five-term lawmaker said he secretly attended a burial service July 8 at the 419-acre cemetery, where he heard members of a voluntary honor guard from Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4 and National Memorial Ladies describe alleged interference by cemetery officials in Christian recitations that included references to "God." "I'm working aggressively behind the scenes to make sure that the person in charge of the cemetery is fired because she has been deliberately and repeatedly preventing families from having the VFW recitation said over their grave," Culberson said.

…The VA formally denied allegations of religious censorship in a federal court filing last week in response to a lawsuit lodged by the nonprofit Liberty Institute….VA officials have explained that the names of God and Jesus are not banned at VA national cemeteries, and that VA policy protects families' rights to pray as they choose during services.

So, you ask, how is it that Rep. Culberson has managed to stay in office as long as he has, given his flirtation with the fringe? Well, partly because he occupies a pretty safe chunk of territory. Texas’ 7th district, which stretches west from Houston through the city’s wealthy western suburbs, is 77 percent white and went for John McCain by 18 points in 2008. Culberson, a former state legislator and graduate of the South Texas College of Law, had his closest call in 2008, when he won with only 56 percent of the vote. But just two years later, his only challenge came from a libertarian candidate, and he won with more than 80 percent of the vote.

His district has been held by Republicans since 1967, making it one of the earliest swaths of Texas to make the flip from D to R, even before Richard Nixon put the Southern Strategy into effect. But it was not always the turf of firebrands. One of the previous occupants? One George H.W. Bush.

From “wouldn’t be prudent” to “Let’s roll”: the arc of the modern GOP, in one district and five words.