Michigan rep may have saved Christmas for Congress

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — One of Michigan's departing members of Congress — a former reindeer rancher and Santa Claus actor — cast the deciding vote Thursday on a bill to allow a $1 trillion spending deal to advance, a decision that may have saved Christmas for hundreds of legislators, staffers and reporters.

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, who failed to get re-elected last month after losing the August primary to Dave Trott, switched his vote on a procedural resolution that allows a final vote Thursday in the House on a $1 trillion spending bill to fund most government operations through Sept. 30.

Bentivolio made the change at the urging of House leaders, some of whom had held fundraisers for his re-election bid. The bill known as a rule passed 214-212, with 16 Republicans voting against including Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township. All 196 Democrats voted against it, though Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn briefly cast a vote in support before quickly changing it.

House leaders warned that if the bill didn't pass, Congress could be stuck in Washington, D.C., until Christmas to hammer out a new bill to fund the government.

Paul Kane, a reporter at the Washington Post, wrote on Twitter: "Congressman Santa Clause (R-Mich.) switches vote for Boehner, saves Christmas maybe? Rules of debate pass, a defeat would've been deadly." Timothy Cama, a reporter for The Hill, wrote: "Reindeer farmer Kerry Bentivolio saved Christmas by voting for the Cromnibus."

Bentivolio, left, and Bachmann

Bentivolio said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, began lobbying him to change his vote when about 170 Republicans had voted against the rule — and Republicans usually vote in favor of the rule. "He said, 'Kerry you have to change your vote,' " Bentivolio recounted in an interview off the House floor with The Detroit News.

He said some Republicans friends voted against the rule "and now they are mad at me. ... I'm just trying to do my job. I don't like sitting on the bench. I like to try to get things done."

Bentivolio said he hasn't dressed as Santa in more than five years and sold his reindeer earlier this year to help pay for his unsuccessful re-election campaign.

It's not clear if Republicans have enough votes to pass the final bill. The government is set to run out of money Friday unless a new spending bill is approved. The House and Senate could opt to pass a short-term extension of a few days if they can't agree on the $1 trillion package.

Bentivolio said he will vote against the budget deal because it doesn't block President Barack Obama's executive action allowing up to 5 million illegal immigrants to work in the United States and remain here.

He said he had cast a protest vote against the rule but changed his mind "because I didn't want to give Nancy Pelosi the floor." He said he looked up at vote tally "and I said 'holy cow,' it really is 212-212. I can't give the victory to Nancy Pelosi," the House Democratic leader.

Bentiovolio added that "I know I don't want to shut the government down."

Asked what he plans to do when he leaves Congress, Bentivolio said: "I plan to follow in the footsteps of Jesus: broke and homeless" — referring cryptically to his finances.

Trott, a longtime Republican donor and Birmingham lawyer, and others dubbed Bentivolio an "accidental congressman" who was out of touch with the district and inaccessible to constituents during his 19 months in office. Trott trounced Bentivolio in the primary, and Bentivolio's write-in campaign in November fell flat.

Elected Republican Party leaders largely backed Trott's bid to unseat Bentivolio, who won the seat in 2012 after then-Rep. Thaddeus McCotter failed to qualify for the August primary ballot because of an insufficient number of valid voter signatures.

Bentivolio, who was a Milford reindeer rancher and Santa Claus actor before being elected to Congress, routinely chided Trott as part of the Republican Party establishment's "elite" club of well-heeled special interests.