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A rock star on the campaign trail, Bachmann wields little influence on the Hill

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Rep. Michele Bachmann has emerged as a leading voice opposed to raising the nation’s borrowing limit, rejecting the White House’s contention that failing to do so could have catastrophic consequences and arguing that the country could use a little bit of “tough love.”

Rather than promoting her views in the back rooms of Congress, however, the Republican presidential candidate has preferred venues where she wields a lot more power: on the campaign trail, where in recent weeks she has attained rock-star status, and in front of the television cameras that gave her a start as a conservative firebrand.

“The economy is tanking,” she said at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, a day after returning from her latest campaign trip to Iowa. A standing-room-only crowd of reporters scribbled notes and clicked pictures. “The real world is telling all the politicians, get your act together. Stop being political. Stop playing with us. ... Pay off the interest on the debt. You can do that.”

Her influence is more muted on Capitol Hill, where she has positioned herself as an outsider and shown little interest in the kind of deal-making that yields results there. A third-term congresswoman from the 6th District of Minnesota, she has sponsored few successful bills and does not hold a leadership post.

Since the beginning of the session, Bachmann has been the lead sponsor of seven bills, none of them yet successful. Of the flurry of bills introduced to deal with the debt limit, Bachmann is listed as a co-sponsor of two. Fellow members of Congress say she has not reached out to convince them of her position on the debt ceiling, nor has she affected their vote.

Bachmann has shot back at her critics, saying she has served as a loyal opposition, voting against efforts that increased government spending and regulation. And she said that her influence over the grass roots is significant, noting that masses of conservative activists who converged for a rally she helped organize against last year’s health-care overhaul.

Her supporters note that Obama had less than three years in the U.S. Senate before he announced his candidacy for president.

Grilled by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly this week about her lack of executive experience, she spun it this way: “I have executive experience in the real world and in the private sector. It’s nice to have government experience, but quite frankly what’s more important is, am I right on the issues and am I right on the policies?”

The apparent effectiveness gap between Michele Bachmann the legislator and Michele Bachmann the presidential candidate and tea party hero has become fodder for her critics. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, another GOP hopeful, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that Bachmann’s congressional record is “nonexistent” and that Republican voters want more than “just speech capabilities.”

Tom Ridge, Homeland Security head under President George W. Bush, told the Washington Times this week that the job of president “requires a set of experiences that [Bachmann] just doesn’t have in her portfolio.”

He allowed, “I think she obviously has great appeal to certain members of the party.” Still, he said, “I’m looking for a winner.”

Bachmann has staked out a unique hard-line position on the debt limit, arguing that it should not be raised without significant spending cuts to include the repeal or defunding of last year’s health-care overhaul, which even Bachmann acknowledges is unlikely to happen.

Her demand does not seem to have wide currency on Capitol Hill.

Many other Republicans have indeed said they are willing to vote against a debt-ceiling deal if their demands aren’t met. But most are demanding something different: legal caps on government spending and congressional passage of a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

In all, 36 members of Congress and 12 senators have signed a “Cut, Cap, Balance” pledge. All are Republicans. One of them, freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) was asked Tuesday whether Bachmann had influenced him in this decision.

“I can think for myself,” West said. “God gave me my own brain.”

Still, one of Bachmann’s strongest allies in Congress, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), said that she’s had an influence through the media.

“I don’t see Michele walking around asking people, ‘Will you agree with me?’ In so many ways, it doesn’t work like that,” King said.

Instead, he said, her statements in the media may have given other Republicans the freedom to take more conservative positions. He said he has not made specific demands about what would be required for him to support the debt increase. But King said he agreed with Bachmann that Republicans should use their leverage in these talks to press for a repeal of health care reform.

“Our negotiators [jumped] to the conclusion that we’ll never get it, because the president won’t agree to it,” King said. But he said that if enough Republicans insisted on repeal, Obama’s hand might be forced. “Have they considered what happens to the president if he doesn’t get a debt ceiling increase?”

Bachmann is not the legislator who has made the most ambitious demand about the debt ceiling. That might be Rep. Paul Broun(R-Ga.), who wants to lower the debt ceiling. Broun’s idea is to pass a bill reducing the debt ceiling to $13 trillion — an amount of debt that the country has already surpassed, way back in June 2010.

So what would happen if that bill became law? Would the U.S. have to cancel debts it already incurred?

“My bill just says that the debt ceiling is $13 trillion. It does not say how we get to that point,” Broun said in an interview. “We’d have to find some way of doing that.”

Broun was asked about the overall impact of Bachmann on fiscal conservatives in Congress.

“How much inspiration that she has on this issue here in Congress? I don’t know. There are many people here in Congress that will not vote to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances,” Broun said. “She’s not caused it to happen. The American people overwhelmingly — if you look at the polls — say, ‘Do not raise the debt ceiling for any reason whatsoever.’”

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