WHEN freshman Rep. Jerry Weller (R) of Illinois landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport last Friday, he was anxious to stage a press conference right in the terminal.
Representative Weller was incredulous that the public was blaming House Republican first-termers for the federal government's shutdown and budget impasse.
Suddenly, the freshmen - one of the strongest "can-do" political forces to hit the nation's capital in decades - were on the defensive as the White House branded them extremist and obstructionist.
While a deal could be struck at any moment, the vaunted freshman class - the minutemen of the Republican revolution - has been politically bruised in the budget battle. They are learning that, in the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics, it's not enough just to stick to your ideals. You have to be able to sell them, too.
On that front, they have been outmaneuvered by the White House and, to a certain extent, by their own leadership. "People are lumping us together with the congressional leadership and the White House for not doing the job," says Weller, who's heard an earful of complaints at gas stations, malls, and restaurants in his district. "But the reason we're having this whole national conversation on fiscal responsibility is because of the freshmen."
Budgeteers from both parties have met on and off for more than a month, but talks had devolved into demagoguery, as Democrats and Republicans accused each other of distorting their respective budget proposals to win political points.
Clinton blasted the GOP for selling out America's children, disabled, and poor to big tax cuts for the rich. Republicans shot back that the White House was more intent on pandering to voters than balancing the budget.
In between the administration's efforts to respond to GOP demands to "negotiate in good faith with a real budget, balanced by the year 2002, and scored by the Congressional Budget Office," the president staged Oval Office ceremonies in which he vetoed a series of GOP funding bills.
"After five weeks of delay and excuses, it's the principals who are failing the American people," says Weller, referring to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, and President Clinton. "It's time to lock 'em up in a room and not let 'em out until they produce an agreement."
One of the few lawmakers who worked on Capitol Hill between Christmas and New Year's, Weller emerged as an informal spokesman for his colleagues who had already returned to their districts for the holidays. "There is plenty of room for compromise on Medicare, welfare, and taxes. That's a consensus among the freshmen," he says.
But administration officials attribute the conciliatory talk to freshmen who are looking at the polls. "They're afraid of what they see," says Lawrence Haas, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Like many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Weller has plenty to worry about. The budget squabble has put his top local legislative priority at risk: the redevelopment of the 24,000-acre Joliet Arsenal, a massive munitions plant that was a big employer for families living in Chicago's southern suburbs.
Unemployment in this largely industrial and agricultural district is much higher than the state's overall jobless rate, and the district's planners have pushed to convert part of the land into an industrial park as a way to revitalize the economy.
But legislation to do that, as well as other bills designating uses for the arsenal's acreage, "fell victim to partisanship with Clinton's recent vetoes of Defense, Veterans, and Interior Department appropriations bills," Weller says.
No fewer than five budgets were on the table: the GOP's; Clinton's; an alternative offered by the "Blue Dogs," conservative Democrats calling for a CBO-scored, seven-year balanced budget devoid of tax cuts; a bipartisan plan brokered by Senators Chafee (R) of Rhode Island and John Breaux (R) of Louisiana that would offer smaller tax cuts than the GOP but deeper reductions than Clinton in social spending growth; and a scheme spearheaded by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota that would spend more than Clinton on social services but offers no tax relief.
GOP strategists quickly recognized the competing Democratic plans as a way to drive a wedge between Clinton and disaffected members of his party.
In turn, Democrats saw chinks in the GOP armor, given the tensions between presidential candidate Dole, whose quest for office made his budget position appear soft compared with the harder-edged Speaker Gingrich's. The freshmen's effort to change the public's view that they were deal-busters, notwithstanding their steadfast demand for the first balanced budget in 26 years, also gave the White House hope that it had the upper hand.
But at every chance, Republican leaders, including Gingrich, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas, and Dole proclaimed that talks could be wrapped up in a few days if the principals would only sit down to talk. All attempts, complained a White House adviser, "to make us look like the spoilers."
Weller sounded relieved over the weekend when the tables had turned: The press was portraying the Democrats as obstructionist, because of Senator Daschle's rejection of a GOP plan to put 280,000 federal employees back to work. "We've known this has been the last best chance to balance the budget," says a GOP strategist.
For his part, Weller is learning a lesson he discovered while serving in the state legislature: that all tough decisions get made at the last minute. Realizing that now, he says the 73 freshmen should have held firm and locked the negotiators in a room a lot earlier.