POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 11:24 a.m. HST, Oct 28, 2012
MOLINE, Ill. — Congressional incumbency has its blessings, but in so many ways it was easier for Rep. Bobby Schilling to run for the House two years ago, when he was slinging dough at his family's pizza place and tossing around barbs about Washington in his bid to be the first Republican to represent his corner of Illinois in a generation.
Now the outsider is the insider, forced to defend the capital he ran against two years ago, as well as colleagues whose ideas he may not agree with and some positions on bills that he now regrets.
"There isn't a button that says ‘I'm not sure,"' Schilling said over coffee here recently, discussing two years of votes, many of them difficult. Those have culminated in the record Schilling is running on against a Democrat whose turn it is to rail against the dysfunction of Congress and what she believes is Schilling's role in it.
Schilling's opponent, Cheri Bustos, attacked him during a recent debate concerning a vote to raise the nation's debt ceiling that would set off huge automatic spending cuts next year.
"I think it was a dangerous vote," she said. "I think it was an irresponsible vote, and I think it's time to take ownership for it." Later, Bustos would not say whether she would vote to raise the debt ceiling if elected; that is the joy of being the challenger that Schilling knew just two years ago.
"The good part about being on the other side," Schilling said, "is that I have to work my tail off representing the people and show them who you are. They're trying to paint me as a right-wing tea partier. I'm right in the middle."
That statement is a far climb from ones Schilling made in 2010, like when he told a radio interviewer: "I'm on with the tea party movement. They're good solid people who've said enough is enough." But incumbents learn what challengers mock — that to keep an office in Washington, one has to adjust.
Schilling is one of 87 Republicans who were elected in 2010, a great many of them conservative newcomers to politics now wearing the badge of incumbency that they so scorned in that historic year.
The members, who came in on a strong head of tea party steam, put an immediate imprimatur on Washington, beginning with a near-shutdown of the government, a fight with the White House that led the nation to flirt with default and the ultimate quashing of a big deal between the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, and President Barack Obama to tame the national debt.
Now they are almost sophomores who made their mark on Washington, but Washington has clearly changed them too. Many, like Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, hail from safe Republican districts and are settling in for long careers in Congress, beginning with a run at leadership positions next year. Others, like Rep. Sandy Adams of Florida, will turn in their voting cards after the shortest of rides at the congressional carnival, tossed out in member-on-member fights or soon to lose in districts that could elect them only in a wave like 2010.
As in every class of Congress, the freshmen of the 112th session produced quiet backbenchers who followed the crowd, rabble-rousers impervious to the arm twists and pleas of the whip, and the random outlier who did things like vote no against nearly every bill or talk for hours on the House floor during open speaking time just because they could.
There were pleasant surprises for Republican leaders, like Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a quiet camp minister who became a stalwart on all of his committees, and not so pleasant ones, like Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who chose a trip to Israel to impulsively skinny dip in front of colleagues in the Sea of Galilee.
And then there was Schilling, who found his spot somewhere in the middle. Swept into office in part with the help of tea party activists here, he voted roughly 90 percent of the time with his Republican leaders and now finds himself in a tight race. Rarely guarded, usually smiling and friends with a few Democrats, Schilling said that Washington's partisanship had been one of life's greatest disappointments.
"My vision going out there versus what actually happened was frustrating," Schilling said. "I knew we wouldn't be able to fix everything as freshmen, but you just go in with higher expectations. And there is so much that is done on both sides just for political purposes."
Schilling started his first month in Washington by initially voting against the renewal of the Patriot Act, which helped lead to a failed bill that startled the leadership and set the stage for a contentious session.
"It was the best decision I ever made," said Schilling, who described the Republican whip team swooping in like a medic unit for a "free one-hour briefing" on why he needed to support the measure, which he later did. "What was great about it was that it let them know that if I don't have enough information about a bill, I wasn't going to be a pushover."
From there Schilling has largely been a yes vote every time it counted — big budget matters, votes the leadership used to send a political message. But he has also voted against them on labor issues and other policy, just enough to keep him in step with some voters in his district, which is heavy with working-class residents, many of them in labor unions.
"I've learned a ton," he said.
The home life of the lawmaker suffered during his first six months in Washington, as his wife, Christie, missed their morning coffees and help with getting their youngest of 10 children off to school. One son, Aaron, who was left to tend to the pizzeria, was often frustrated, and in a pique he fired his younger brother, setting off a minicrisis. Christie Schilling had to pick up the bookkeeping for the business and can be seen running a broom across the floor there from time to time.
Aaron is now in the home-building businesses and much happier.
"I love coming in here and looking around and knowing I don't have to do a thing," he said on a recent night when family and supporters had gathered to eat pizza and watch the vice-presidential debate.
Another son, Joseph, 18, is now in charge of pizza flipping and is taking the business his own way.
"He's put a lot of new things on the menu," Schilling said with equal parts awe and confusion. "He's got spicy chicken pizza with hot sauce. I came in one day, and he was making a pizza with Hershey's kisses and marshmallows, s'mores pizza. I said, ‘What the heck is that?' He wants to get into wraps next."
The man who once had to go begging for money from the Washington Republican political establishment has now enjoyed two visits from Boehner, who came to town recently to help him raise money. And there is a thrill in being able to put one's name behind a bridge repair or changes at the local arsenal or in helping a constituent get her ill father out of Mexico. It is the privilege and responsibility of a lawmaker, the part you cannot see back in Washington.
Like a veteran, he now leaves the House floor when the opposing party comes out to tout its "motion to recommit" legislation designed to embarrass the other side. "I've learned not to pay attention to that," he said. "It's one of those things that isn't about solving problems."