On the budget, House GOP's fiery freshmen reveal a pragmatic side
They held budget negotiators' feet to the fire, but the GOP House freshmen also proved to be flexible. Too, their voting record for their first 100 days in office is less monolithic than many had expected.
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Also shared among the 87 is the insistence that the voter mandate that sent them to Congress was a mandate to change how Washington works.Skip to next paragraph
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"The American people sent us here because they wanted change in Washington," says Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R) of Indiana, the owner of a farm-trucking company, who served eight years as a state legislator. "We have to stick to our principles and do what the American people want."
Since coming to Washington, the freshmen have faced a blizzard of votes on issues ranging from the repeal of health-care reform to historic cuts across vast areas of domestic spending – all while assembling a congressional staff and still learning to navigate the Capitol's underground tunnels. Like newcomers before them, they're stunned by the pace of the work, but also at how long it takes to make changes.
While their impact on the House is formidable by the numbers – they comprise one-fifth of the House and more than one-third of House Republicans – the freshmen are still on a learning curve. More than half have no previous legislative experience, and more than one-third have never held political office.
Many freshmen note with surprise that the Senate can ignore House votes on issues ranging from the repeal of health-care reform to spending cuts. The spending bill to fund the balance of this fiscal year, which the House spent days crafting and amending, for example, was at first summarily dismissed by the Senate.
"It's frustrating that we can't get the Senate to respond," says freshman Rep. James Lankford (R) of Oklahoma, whose previous experience includes a mastery of biblical languages and 14 years directing programs for the nation's largest Baptist youth camp.
He says that he is aware of the criticism that the freshmen don't understand the ways of Washington, especially the art of compromise, but says that the nation's fiscal situation is so extreme that strong measures are needed.
"Some people define compromise as, 'I sacrifice my principles,' " he says. He's alarmed that "the Senate won't consider cutting $62 billion," despite the fact that estimates of the budget shortfall for the current fiscal year have increased more than $250 billion since he arrived Jan. 5.
"We're off here in uncharted territory," he adds.
To reach a budget deal, House Republican leaders initially proposed $32 billion in spending cuts – the most dramatic cut in domestic discretionary spending since-World War II. But party conservatives, including most freshmen, pushed to roll back spending to pre-Obama levels – a campaign pledge – by cutting $62 billion. That spending bill passed Feb. 19 by a vote of 235 to 189, with all GOP freshmen voting in favor.
But the GOP freshmen splintered over whether to cut spending further still. Over the opposition of most Republican Party leaders, 60 of 87 freshmen backed an amendment to cut an additional $22 billion in spending for FY 2011 – slashing funding for the legislative branch by 11 percent and cutting 5.5 percent across the-board for most other nondefense spending. The measure failed, 147 to 281, with 92 Republicans and all Democrats voting in opposition.
An amendment for more-severe cuts, which would have brought spending back to FY 2006 levels, received only 33 freshman votes. The measure failed with 93 "yes" votes, meaning that freshmen did not support it any more or less than other Republicans.