For Northern Virginia's Rep. Wolf, fiscal future is a mix of bad news, so-so news

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2011; 9:56 PM

In meetings on Capitol Hill with the Washington region's other elected representatives, Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia used to have plenty of company from fellow Republicans: Sens. John Warner and George Allen of Virginia, Reps. Tom Davis of Virginia and Connie Morella of Maryland.

Those days are gone. Democrats dominate the suburbs and have gained strength across Virginia. Wolf survives as the only Republican among the 11 elected officials in Congress with constituents inside the Beltway. (The group comprises four senators, six representatives and the District's nonvoting delegate.)

With Republicans taking control of the House on Wednesday, that distinction makes Wolf an especially important figure for the region. So I went to ask the 30-year veteran whether the GOP takeover is as worrisome for the region as I fear and to find out more about the politician representing us in the new majority.

In an hour-long interview in his congressional office Tuesday, Wolf, 72, assuaged some of my concerns about the potential impact on the region - but only a little. I found his political profile to be somewhat mixed but typical for a Republican from Northern Virginia, where even ardently conservative voters have a taste for a pragmatic style.

On one hand, Wolf zealously espouses the tea party's goals of cutting the federal deficit - a position, he stresses, that he's had for years. But he chooses his words carefully to avoid controversy and says he wants to stanch the red ink through bipartisan compromises that spread the pain evenly.

Wolf's main message is that although the Washington region is likely to endure some financial hardship in coming years, it will not be alone.

"The whole country is going to go through a difficult time, because we have lived beyond our means," Wolf said. "You've got to tell people what they may not want to hear," he said, especially about the need to trim entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

On the bright side, Wolf is confident that Republicans' anti-spending, anti-government approach will not jeopardize federal funds pledged to finish the Metro line being built through Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport (the line is in his 10th District, which stretches from McLean and Manassas west to Winchester and Front Royal).

He also said he thinks the promised federal subsidy for Metro is safe, although it's only a year old and requires a fresh appropriation of $150 million each year.

"It's been authorized. I don't think that'll be a problem," Wolf said.

Wolf's assurances carry some weight, as he is a longtime transportation expert and member of the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

On the other hand, he agreed with my assessment that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find significant amounts of fresh money for other badly needed investments in roads and mass transit in the Washington area. The federal highway trust fund is depleted, but there's no political support for raising the gasoline taxes that have traditionally filled it.

"I don't know the answer to that. Obviously, you're going to have to deal with it," Wolf said. "You have to rebuild your infrastructure and make sure your roads are up, so as we come out of the recession you have good roads, good ports, good rails."

Wolf also confirmed my expectation that voting rights for the District have no chance, given the GOP's control of the House and increased presence in the Senate.

"I think it's dead. If it didn't pass in the last Congress, I don't think it'll pass here," said Wolf, who voted in favor of the bill.

He declined to speculate about whether Republicans would meddle in the District's internal affairs on issues such as gun control, but he urged Mayor Vincent Gray to get personally involved on the Hill, especially with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"The new mayor ought to come up and he ought to introduce himself to the chairman and the Republican members," Wolf said. "A lot of this thing is relationships."

I had a hard time pinning Wolf down on what he thinks about President Obama's decision to freeze federal pay. On one hand, many of his constituents are federal workers. On the other, Wolf is passionate about the need to eliminate the federal deficit.

After several questions, Wolf said about the freeze: "Do I think it was the greatest thing? No, I don't think so." He said that it saved only about $2 billion in the face of a $1.5 trillion deficit, adding: "I don't think you go to the federal salary of the CIA agent in Khost or Kandahar, who's risking his life day in and day out" to save money.

It was refreshing that Wolf, unlike many of his Republican colleagues, was unwilling to demonize federal workers as overpaid and ineffective. He mentioned FBI agents fighting kidnappers and National Institutes of Health researchers seeking cures for cancer.

"When you look at the role that federal employees play, I think it's an important role," he said.

That kind of common-sense approach will be a welcome relief from some of the excessive anti-government rhetoric we've heard from Wolf's GOP colleagues as they take over the House.

I will discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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