With government shutdown looming, freshmen are the wild cards

By David A. Fahrentholdand Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; A01

In just two months, a freshman class of Republicans has found a way to run the House.

These 87 new members - who otherwise might have become foot soldiers for party bosses, or jittery pawns of their home-town tea party groups - have instead coalesced into a bloc with its own ideas and a headstrong sense of its muscle.

As Republicans and Democrats try to cut a short-term budget deal this week - and a more permanent one in coming weeks - the freshmen are the wild card. They have the power to derail the whole process. Again.

But even their own leaders don't know if they will.

The freshmen's willingness to do things their way stems from their hyper-confident vision of themselves, revealed in interviews in recent days with more than 30 members of the group. Many described their job as a "calling," a sense that their grandchildren, their country or their God needed them to make hard decisions to right the government's finances.

"We may be the last opportunity," said Rep. Michael G. Grimm (N.Y.), a former FBI agent.

But now, the difficult part.

In the escalating budget fight - and other battles to come - the freshmen will face the capital's hardest kind of decision: how to compromise on the issue they care about the most.

How much ground will the freshmen give before they defy the Senate and risk a government shutdown?

"I don't know," Rep. Joe Walsh (Ill.) said when asked how the newcomers would react if the Democratic-controlled Senate offered a spending bill with fewer cuts than theirs. "I don't know. I don't know. And I think most freshmen don't know."

This class of Republican freshmen - the largest for either party in at least six decades - includes nine women and 78 men. Their views are not all the same: Some have called for a more nuanced approach to spending cuts, while others have insisted that the House's bare-bones budget was not bare enough.

Many can recount the moment they realized they were mad enough to run for Congress.

Rep. Alan Nunnelee (Miss.) said that he was happy as a state legislator, and that he had resisted previous efforts to draft him as a candidate. Then, on March 27, 2009, he learned he was going to be a grandfather.

"What I saw happening in Washington really was endangering the freedom" his new grandson would have, Nunnelee said. "I had a moral obligation to do something about it."

Rep. Blake Farenthold (Tex.) was a talk-radio host, one of more than three dozen freshmen who had never held an elected office.

"I really feel like I was called to run for office at this time," he said. "A whole bunch of things all came together at once. . . . I can't credit that to anything but divine intervention."

With that kind of back story, the freshmen said they wouldn't play the role of Congress's rookies. Instead of being taught by longtime lawmakers, many said, they wanted to teach.

"When you say, 'We need to listen to the American people,' that's us," said Rep. Kevin Yoder (Kan.), a former state legislator.

This group - which represents about one-third of the Republicans in the House - showed its muscle last month, in a series of private meetings with House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other GOP leaders.

At issue was how deep to cut spending in a "continuing resolution" to fund the government for the remaining seven months of this fiscal year. During the midterm campaign, Republicans had pledged to cut $100 billion over a year.

But the leadership presented a number equal to seven-twelfths of $100 billion.

The math worked. But, freshmen say, the politics didn't.

"We felt like we told the people that we would do $100 billion," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), a former prosecutor. "And when you start using the words 'pro-rata' or 'There's seven months left in the budget' - as a prosecutor, when you're explaining, you're losing."

The leadership agreed, without much of a fight, and went back to make additional reductions. In Congress's world of tradition and seniority, the tail had officially wagged the dog.

But from here on out, it will be harder to be Congress's heroes.

Many of the freshmen say they want to consider changes to Medicare, Social Security and other entitlement programs, which have been political land mines in the past. And Senate Democrats and the White House probably will stop many of their proposals cold.

"We may not make it. Honestly. It may blow up in our face as well," said Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), who previously directed a Christian youth camp. "At some point, somebody's going to stand up and say, 'We cannot keep doing this.' "

This is a key part of the story the freshmen tell about themselves: that they don't mind turning some people off, or even losing reelection.

"I cannot tell you how liberating it is," Gowdy said. "The job just doesn't mean that much to me. I'm loyal to my word, and in the end I think that's what I'll be judged on."

But the election is still 21 months away. In that time, historians say, the freshmen will find it more and more difficult to hold on to their sense of exceptionalism - that they can be in Washington, but not of it.

"Their principal vulnerability is that - having been elected - they will be seen as politicians. No matter what. By definition, they are politicians," said Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University. Baker said that means making complicated decisions that are hard to explain to voters.

"The alternative, of course, is to be voices in the wilderness," Baker said - uncompromised, but also irrelevant.

But the fallout from their hard decisions will not come just at the election.

Last week, as freshmen went home to their districts for town hall meetings, Rep. Robert T. Schilling (Ill.) could already feel it in the pit of his stomach.

"He who turns a blind eye will get many a curse," said an angry Clara Caldwell, 81, quoting Proverbs at Schilling's town hall meeting in Moline, Ill. She was criticizing him for voting to cut funding for Head Start programs.

Last year, Schilling was making pies at Saint Giuseppe's Heavenly Pizza, the restaurant he owns just a few blocks away. On this night, he received applause and criticism from a standing-room crowd. Schilling tried reasoning with the critics: "Lots of people say, 'We need cuts.' But everybody in the room says, 'Don't cut my stuff.' "

He tried conciliation, on the subject of an Amtrak project in the district, which he'd voted to cut. "The Amtrak will probably end up happening someday," Schilling said.

And he tried, in a quiet way, to ask for sympathy. "The stress that's out there is just unbelievable," he said, meaning in Washington.

It isn't just in Washington. "Your stomach kind of knots. Your mouth's dry. I went through a whole bottle of water in there," Schilling said after the town hall meeting, walking to his car. Good to get used to it, he said. "It's not going to get any better. We're on a mission."

fahrenthold@washpost.com ruckerp@washpost.com

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