Republican freshman in House faces the perils of his promises

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; A01

MANCHESTER, N.H. - As the government programs fell and the tens of billions in savings piled up during the budget debate in the House last week, freshman Republican Frank Guinta was right there cutting with the rest of them.

The former Manchester mayor axed funds for after-school programs in his home town. He voted against money to replace an aging bridge in Portsmouth. And he backed steep reductions for health centers that treat thousands of New Hampshire's uninsured.

But Guinta also found that he had some limits. He wasn't willing to cut a subsidy for heating bills. And he tried to rescue some pork: a $450 million fighter engine that not even the Pentagon wants.

As they return to their districts after the budget debate, Guinta and many of his fellow Republicans are discovering that fiscal responsibility can be a tricky business. Many federal programs reside in a vast gray zone, somewhere between worthy and wasteful. And while pledging to rise above local interests can establish a candidate as a principled outsider, for a member of Congress, it's often a quick way to guarantee a short career.

"This is not campaigning, this is governing," Guinta said in an interview. "They're two very different things. And you have to be very careful what you say when you're campaigning, because people will hold you accountable."

In all likelihood, many of the $61 billion in cuts that Guinta and his fellow Republicans supported will be restored by the Democratic-controlled Senate, whose leaders say the House bill goes too far. If the two chambers can't reconcile their differences before March 4, when a temporary funding measure expires, the government would shut down.

House and Senate leaders are discussing a bill that would fund the government for two to four weeks, but conservatives such as Guinta insist that any measure, no matter its duration, include hefty reductions.

During his campaign, Guinta ran on an undefined pledge to cut and then cut some more - "being a member of Congress today shouldn't be about bringing money back to your community or your state or your district," he said last fall. Now that he's beginning to define exactly what he meant, Guinta is confronting the perils of his promises.

Those health center reductions, for instance, would be a big blow to Exeter Hospital, whose chief executive let the congressman know as much this week. And while the 800 jobs that are supported by building the fighter engine are important to Hooksett, many conservatives wonder why Guinta has gone soft.

"We sent you to do a job," one woman told Guinta between events on Tuesday. "We don't want your excuses."

But even in these austere times in a state as fiscally conservative as New Hampshire, there are federal programs that many people count on. The subsidy for heating bills is particularly popular in frigid New England and has swollen in recent years to counter the impact of the recession. President Obama has proposed cutting the subsidy program in half, from about $5 billion to $2.5 billion, a "sustainable level" that reflects an improving economy and lower energy prices.

Guinta worries the president's timetable may be premature. "It's heart-wrenching to see that there are people in this country who are faced with those kinds of challenges," he said.

Front-page critic

The tea party movement played a big role in electing Guinta, and those same groups are now closely monitoring his actions. The umbrella New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, for instance, urged supporters to phone Guinta's office to urge his opposition to the fighter engine.

On Thursday, Joseph W. McQuaid, the influential conservative publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, criticized Guinta in a front-page editorial for working with fellow freshman Republican Rep. Charlie Bass to rescue the engine program.

"We fault him, and Bass, for ignoring the pleas of both the Bush and Obama administrations to cut $450 million for a wasteful, duplicative jet fighter engine that happens to affect some jobs in Hooksett," McQuaid wrote. "Their effort failed, which is fortunate. The country is in crisis. Everyone needs to suck it up."

Guinta's rationale on the engine vote is that competition is always better. He believes it will lower costs over time and provide greater certainty for the military.

"We have to be effective and efficient as a government. And we've got to do what's in the best interest of defending our nation," Guinta said.

But he conceded that old habits, especially when it comes to home-state interests, die hard. "Changing that congressional behavior is happening to some extent," he said, "but it won't happen immediately."

Some look at the House bill, recognize it will never pass the Senate, and wonder what exactly Guinta has accomplished.

It's a relief to hear lawmakers pledge to tackle the nation's fiscal problems, said H. Bliss Dayton, a Bradford banker, after hearing Sen. Kelly Ayotte, another newly elected Granite State Republican, speak on Wednesday. But he wonders why none of his state's new lawmakers is offering a broader vision for reshaping government.

'Reckless cutting'

"I see a lot of potential for reckless cutting," Dayton said. "What I don't see is much discussion of what's the purpose of having a public sector, and how should it be designed?"

The House spending bill would cut $1.3 billion in federal funding for community health centers. It would erase leftover stimulus funds that Exeter Hospital is counting on.

In a conference room at Exeter, chief executive Kevin Callahan told Guinta that the House bill would undercut one of the pillars of local health care: a community health center that treats low-income residents. If the center didn't exist, patients would go to the emergency room for basic services, at many times the cost.

"That is a way of providing health care that I think most people don't take advantage of," Guinta interjected.

Mark Whitney, the hospital's head of strategic planning, urged Guinta to seek out the people who run the center to learn more about their work. "I think that would be a great conversation," Whitney said.

Later, in an interview, Guinta said the House bill "is only step one."

"There are things that I prefer not be in there," he said, including the health center cuts.

But, Guinta said, "I'm measuring it against, we have to send a message. There is genuine expectation that this Congress will set the course properly again. And to different people it means different things."

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