GOP Freshmen: We're Not Radicals
July 28, 2011
The House Republican freshmen gathered outside the Capitol on Thursday to insist they aren’t a bunch of angry tea partiers ready to blow up Speaker John Boehner’s debt ceiling bill.
“So many of you like to write about our freshman class [that] we’re radical, we’re extreme, we’re uncontrollable,” said Sean Duffy, a former reality TV star turned freshman legislator from Wisconsin. “But today is important because this freshman class is coming together to get around a proposal, an idea.”
Duffy has a point. Since the large, historic class was elected last November, it has been portrayed as a bloc of citizen legislators and uncompromising conservatives who pushed their old guard leadership to the right on major spending battles — like the government shutdown debate earlier this year, when Republicans passed $100 billion in spending cuts and forced an eventual showdown with the president that resulted in historic cuts for their party.
And while it’s true that the freshmen are a driving force in the debt ceiling standoff, on Thursday evening’s debt ceiling vote they’re playing the role of loyal Boehner foot soldiers as he presses for a victory on his legislation.
That’s not to say the freshmen have gone quiet.
During the government spending standoff, a group of freshmen protested every day for more than a week on the Senate steps to put pressure on Democrats to cut government spending. After the House passed Paul Ryan’s budget, they publicly demanded the president tell Democrats to stop using “Mediscare” tactics on voters. But in the final hours before a floor vote on Boehner’s debt ceiling compromise, they’ve emerged as some of the strongest supporters of their speaker’s plan.
In fact, the tenor among the freshmen Thursday was what one member described as a “partisan pep rally.” In a GOP conference meeting, Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly, a former football player, told Republicans they should put on their helmets, put in their mouth pieces and tighten their chinstraps. Florida Rep. Richard Nugent appeared at the freshman press conference Thursday, holding a placard that read “play like a champion today.”
“Today we have a historic opportunity to do the right thing … that’s what we’re going do,” Nugent said.
Kelly said that he and his colleagues were making a show of support because “We refuse to lose the country that we’ve fought for all of our lives, we refuse to lose the country that our parents and grandparents fought for, and refuse to lose the future for our children and our grandchildren. So if I’m a radical and an extremist because I want to do that, then go ahead and paint me that way. I welcome that battle.”
The freshmen insisted that the Boehner plan was their last, best hope to raise the debt ceiling, one negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (a claim he adamantly denies) and the only proposal that meets their goal of cutting and capping federal spending over the next 10 years.
“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. This is a good plan, a reasoned, responsible approach to taking the necessary steps to move our country forward and restore some fiscal discipline in this country,” Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said.
Many of the freshmen have legislative experience at the state level — so this likely isn’t their first involvement with compromise.
Just over 70 percent of the class of 87 came to Washington with a background in politics — as state legislators, mayors, town councilmen, top political aides and sometimes even as former members of the House. Few doubt their conservatism, but their political experience is frequently underestimated. On the debate to keep the government funded this spring, just 20 joined 39 of their more senior members in voting against the bill because it didn’t cut enough spending.
Even though some of the freshmen previously took a hard line against the debt ceiling — vowing in some cases that they wouldn’t vote to raise it, some of the most conservative members of this class, including tea party favorite Allen West, are strong supporters of Boehner’s last minute effort to hike the debt ceiling in exchange for a greater amount of spending cuts.
“Let’s be clear: the Boehner plan is far from perfect. Had I written it myself it would be much different,” said Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), a former city council member who helped organize the press conference with Reps. Tim Griffin of Arkansas, a former aide for Karl Rove, and Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado, a former Republican Senate staffer. “But I don’t have the luxury of writing the bill myself and neither does Speaker Boehner. He must work within the political reality that Democrats still run Washington.”
Even as they rally around the plan, none deny that it falls short of what they were hoping for.
“This is not the end of the debate,” Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) said. “But it is the beginning of a resolution.”