US Rep. Paul Gosar
CNN  — 

As he darted down to Florida last week and skipped crucial House votes, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona neglected to tell GOP Rep. Ann Wagner of Missouri the full story behind why he needed her to vote in his place.

In a letter to the House designating Wagner to vote on his behalf, Gosar cited the “ongoing public health emergency” as the reason why he couldn’t attend votes as the chamber considered President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan. The reality: He was down in Orlando meeting with activists at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference, even speaking to a right-wing group organized by a white nationalist.

Wagner was angry when she learned the news, according to a person with knowledge of the exchange, and told him to find another member to vote on his behalf.

But Gosar still continued to mislead the House, enlisting another member to vote for him and noting in his letter to the House clerk: “I continue to be unable to physically attend proceedings in the House Chamber due to the ongoing public health emergency.”

The private exchange was the latest example of the backlash facing 13 Republicans – some of former President Donald Trump’s closest allies – after CNN reported they lied that they couldn’t make House votes because of the pandemic but were instead meeting with their supporters at CPAC and boosting their own profiles in the process.

What’s irked some top Republicans even more: The House GOP voiced outrage last year at the move by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow members to vote “by proxy” – so much so that the Republican Conference signed onto a high-profile lawsuit alleging such a voting system violated the Constitution, a suit still being considered in the courts.

Now there are a growing number of Republicans using the very same system they’ve long criticized, undermining their case – and misusing the system as well.

“No member should be filing false statements,” Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the Conference, told CNN when asked about her colleagues’ recent use of proxy voting.

“When you get into a situation where members are signing letters, no matter if they’re Republicans or Democrats, saying that they can’t be here in person because of the public health emergency and then going someplace else, I think that raises very serious questions and I think it’s an issue that has got to be addressed,” Cheney added.

In private, the issue has festered as well.

At a closed-door conference meeting this week, a debate broke about whether Republicans should change their position on the issue given that Democrats have fully embraced the system and have fewer absences even when the voting schedule changes at a drop of dime. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska told his conference that Republicans should consider a shift in approach, while Rep. Chip Roy of Texas chided his colleagues for using false reasons for skipping the votes, according to attendees.

Bacon told CNN that proxy voting is wrong, but he indicated that Democrats continue to have an advantage by their party’s embrace of the system – not only because it makes them more flexible to schedule changes but also because it ensures virtually every Democrat will vote even if they are not all physically present.

“I haven’t done any proxy voting and I don’t think it’s wise to do it,” Bacon said. “However, I do think our conference should rethink this absolutely no, because we end up getting jerked around and (Pelosi) could change the schedules and it doesn’t affect them. It affects us. And I think in the end, we could lose some points if we don’t.”

“It puts us at a disadvantage,” Bacon added. “It could be a difference between winning and losing a vote.”

Bacon, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said he initially was planning to take his wife to a resort in Tucson last week, but knew he had to cancel when votes were added last Friday.

“Trust me I was tempted, but I didn’t think it would be right because I knew in the end I would have to answer was it Covid related? No, it’s not,” he said.

Roy has made both a public and a private crusade against his colleagues misusing proxy voting, making a statement on the House floor the same day his colleagues were at CPAC that the only reason to proxy vote would be for Covid related reasons.

“The vast majority of the Republican Conference agrees,” Roy said in an interview. “We’ve had a few who I think have succumbed to the recklessness of what the Democrats have been doing and making our schedule really difficult.”

Indeed, Roy said that he knew House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy agreed with his position and added that after calling out those who abused the policy, he hoped his colleagues would “stick to the script,” and reflect the party’s public position against the measure. But McCarthy has privately signaled to his colleagues he is more amenable now to the use of proxy voting, according to GOP sources.

“I understand it’s hard but I tell my side of the aisle, guys: ‘Hold the line,’” Roy added.

Yet it’s clear GOP interest in the fight is waning. There has been a sharp drop off in House GOP support for their lawsuit, only 21 of the original 160 members who initially signed on to the legal challenge are still a part of it. (Twenty-seven of the original signatories are no longer in Congress)

As they returned to Washington this week, multiple Republicans who abused the proxy voting system declined to comment to CNN.

Freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who skipped House votes in order to attend CPAC, told CNN that the conference was “great” but would not answer when asked why she used proxy voting, which cited the pandemic, as her reason for being unable to vote in person last week.

And as he entered the House chamber, Gosar ignored CNN’s questions about why he told the House he was skipping votes because of the pandemic when he was speaking to activists instead.

Speaking to CNN in Florida, Gosar defended his decision to attend the America First Political Action conference, organized by a white nationalist.

“I wanted to see for myself what they’re talking about,” Gosar told CNN. “I don’t think there’s a problem with that at all. I think there’s a right for them to hear from me.”

Gosar added: “I do not support white nationalism. Period.”

In an interview, Wagner downplayed the notion that she is upset at Gosar for asking her to vote on his behalf. But she told CNN unequivocally: “I was not going to vote anyone’s proxy who was traveling for other reasons and not to come vote.”

“I just said, ‘you know, find someone else to carry your proxy,’” the Missouri lawmaker added.

CNN’s Michael Warren contributed to this report.