For the House’s famous class of Republican freshmen, the first four months in office have brought a frustrating surprise. The divided, mistrustful bent of American politics — which brought them to power last fall — is now making that power maddeningly difficult to use.
On Capitol Hill, the Democrats they bashed have turned the Senate into a black hole for GOP ideas. So the freshmen are left with political theater, voting for bills the Senate will ignore.
And back home, the same hoarse-throat tactics that helped them bring down incumbents last year — attacks on a health-care plan, town-hall heckling — have been used against them.
On Tuesday in western New York, the freshmen saw what Democrats saw a year ago.
These tactics work.
In a special election to fill a vacated House seat, Democrat Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin and a third-party candidate to fill a seat long in Republican hands. The election turned on the same allegations that are haunting the freshmen at town-hall meetings: that a House budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would “destroy” Medicare by shifting new recipients to private insurance plans, paid for with government subsidies, in a decade.
“Do we have an issue? Of course we do. There is a lot of fog getting thrown out, and I have people coming up and saying, ‘I don’t know who to believe,’ ” freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said Wednesday.
Huizenga, however, rejected the idea that the Democrats were simply reusing the tactics that Republicans used to attack President Obama’s health-care law.
“They are lying,” Huizenga said. In contrast, he said, “we’ve got facts.”
The Washington Post interviewed 18 of the 87 Republican freshmen, representing all corners of the country and a range of political beliefs. Many of the freshmen said they still felt the happy rush of taking office and were proud that they had made a significant shift in Washington’s conversation about spending.
The best sign of that was the 2011 federal budget, agreed to just minutes before the government was going to shut down. Under pressure from tea-party-influenced freshmen, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) won about $38 billion in potential savings.
“That is what we’re talking about,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University. “We’re talking about cutting things. And in that respect, [the freshmen] were victorious, even if they don’t feel that way.”
And often, they don’t.
“There’s a lot of spinning wheels,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). “You at least want to know that you’re solving problems. And there can be moments when you wonder if we are.”
Under Republican control, the House has passed dozens of new bills and resolutions. But fewer than 10 have made it through the Senate. Bills to repeal the health-care law, extend offshore drilling and rein in the Environmental Protection Agency have all stalled.
“ ‘Hey, Dad, I’m wondering . . . Harry Reid says he’s not going to pass [one of the House bills], and the president said he’s going to veto it. So why are you guys going to do it anyway?’ ” Huizenga recalled his 13-year-old son asking in an e-mail. “ ‘And — oh, by the way — I scored a goal in floor hockey.’ ”
Huizenga said he e-mailed back and told his son that it is important for politicians to keep their promises to voters. But even he is frustrated with that role.
“It’s the mirage,” Huizenga said, talking about his hopes for the freshman term. “You’re hoping for palm trees and a lagoon. And you get there, and it’s a bush and a trickling spring. But it’s better than nothing.”
For now, the happiest freshmen might be those who are happy to remain political bomb-throwers.
“I still don’t know my way around the Capitol. I still don’t know how the protocol works on the [House] floor. I could care less,” said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.). Walsh said his goals were not to legislate; he wants to continue pointing out Obama’s failings. “Of all the 87 Republican freshmen, I’ve probably gotten more media attention than any of them.”
Several said they had been frustrated with town-hall meetings. That’s been especially true after the House passed a Republican budget that would alter Medicare — shifting seniors to private insurance plans, subsidized by the government, beginning in 2022.
“In a court of law, you say it once, and you offer a piece of evidence, and that fact is no longer in dispute,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), previously a prosecutor. But in town-hall meetings, Gowdy said, he’s been forced to repeatedly prove the same point: that the GOP plan would not affect seniors who are already on Medicare.
This month, 42 freshmen signed a letter to Obama, asking him to stop what they called “Mediscare” attacks from Democrats. The letter conceded that, in the past, “We have all been guilty” of playing politics with important issues.
Democrats were, of course, gleeful. They pointed out that several Republicans had accused Democrats of gutting Medicare during the last campaign.
“They’re like the classic schoolyard bullies,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “who throw punches — and then when you throw a punch back, they beg for forgiveness.”
Now comes a vote on the debt ceiling — in essence, a choice to raise the U.S. credit limit. Several freshmen said they hoped to use this must-pass bill to force sharper spending cuts on both the Senate and Obama.
“The real test is now,” said Rep. Raul R. Labrador (R-Idaho). “There’s got to be short-term and long-term demands that we have to make, before we even consider voting for the debt ceiling.”
But, in a curdled political atmosphere, can Congress really make a bipartisan deal on something this big? Would a divided public accept a bargain that requires concessions from both sides?
When Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla.) showed up for a town-hall meeting in Pompano Beach on Tuesday, he had trouble even finding a quiet moment to explain the issue.
“Let’s move on. Let’s talk about the debt,” West said as a woman in the crowd heckled him about corporate tax breaks.
In the campaign, West had once said of his Democratic opponent, “You’ve got to make the fellow scared to come out of his house.” Now, he was pleading for calm. But the shouting continued, with others trying to shush the woman.
“All right,” West said, trying again. “Let’s talk about the debt.”
More yelling. West then took the commanding tone of the Army lieutenant colonel he used to be.
“Hey! Hey!” he said. “AT EASE!”
Finally, the room was quiet.