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Back home, GOP freshmen find fiscal responsibility can be tricky business

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House Speaker John Boehner criticized President Obama Thursday, saying he punted on entitlements in his proposed budget. "When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips, we're going to cut spending." (Feb. 17)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 12:07 AM

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.

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The former Manchester mayor axed funds for after-school programs in his hometown. 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 from 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 size 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.

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