Incoming GOP freshmen rapidly embracing big-money fundraisers

A variety of new faces showed up for the first day of the "lame duck" session in Congress.
By Dan Eggen
Monday, December 6, 2010; 12:25 AM

After Francisco "Quico" Canseco beat Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.) as part of the Republican wave on Nov. 2, the tea party favorite declared: "It's going to be a new day in Washington."

Two weeks later, Canseco was in the heart of Washington for a $1,000-a-head fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club. The event--hosted by Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) and Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.)--was aimed at paying off more than $1.1 million in campaign debts racked up by Canseco, much of it from his own pocket.

After winning election with an anti-Washington battle cry, Canseco and other incoming Republican freshmen have rapidly embraced the capital's culture of big-money fundraisers, according to new campaign-finance reports and other records.

Dozens of freshmen lawmakers have held receptions at Capitol Hill bistros and corporate townhouses in recent weeks, taking money from K Street lobbyists and other powerbrokers within days of their victories. Newly elected House members have raised at least $2 million since the election, according to preliminary Federal Election Commission records filed last week, and many more contributions have yet to be tallied.

The aggressive fundraising efforts underscore the financial pressures facing new members of Congress even before they take their seats. The contributions also represent a symbolic challenge for the Republican class of 2010, many of whom gained office by running against the ways of official Washington and monied interests.

"The lobbyists are all saying, 'Welcome to Washington; let me help pay off your debt,'" said Nancy Watzman, who tracks political fundraisers for the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. "It's particularly interesting when so many of this year's freshmen were running against Washington. But as soon as they get elected, they come to Washington and put out their hand."

But GOP officials and legislative aides defend the fundraising push as simple pragmatism: the cost of winning office in Congress is high, especially during a midterm election that saw record expenditures on scores of competitive races. Many new House members are scrambling to take care of debts from 2010 so they can turn their attention to the next cycle, according to aides and campaign-finance experts.

"The first step in raising money for the 2012 election cycle is to close the door on the 2010 election cycle," said Paul Lindsay, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is headed by Sessions. "Chairman Sessions appreciates the hard fought battles that have left incoming members with debt to retire, and he is committed to helping them enter the next election cycle in a strong position."

Incoming GOP lawmakers have held more than a dozen "debt retirement" fundraisers over the past month, according to a partial tally by the Sunlight Foundation. Examples include incoming representative Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), who held a debt-retirement dinner at Carmine's Restaurant last Wednesday night; required donations were $2,500 for guests and $5,000 for sponsors, according to an invitation.

Spokesmen for Walberg and many other newly elected lawmakers did not respond to requests for comment about their post-election fundraising.

Rep.-elect Bill Flores (R-Tex.), a retired energy executive who held a debt-retirement reception Nov. 17, received post-election contributions from political-action committees for, among others, Deloitte, ExxonMobil and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. Flores, who ousted Democratic veteran Chet Edwards, also forgave himself more than $600,000 in personal loans, FEC records show.

The financial advisors group also gave $2,500 each to more than a dozen other incoming legislators including Rep.-elect Dan Benishek (R-Mich.), who held a Nov. 18 fundraiser, records show. Benishek took in last-minute donations from Johnson Controls, Delta Airlines and the K&L Gates lobbying firm, records show.

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