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Strong in number and spirit, Republican freshmen hold sway


WASHINGTON » The last speaker was Rep. Steve Southerland, freshman lawmaker from Florida, and so he dug deep. Drawing on the two things that propel him through each day — his experience as funeral home operator, and his general loathing of all things Washington — Southerland politely lit into Republican House leaders one day last week, explaining that he had not come to Washington to whack the federal budget this year by one dollar less than the $100 billion he had pledged to cut in his campaign.

"I wanted them to hear my heart, and not just my words," recounted Southerland, one of scores of freshmen lawmakers — there are seven Republicans from his home state alone — who pressed for, and prevailed, in crafting a more aggressive plan to cut government spending.

The big question after the midterm elections: Would this giant class of 87 Republican newbies in the House, many with little or no elected experience, change the ways of Washington or would Washington change them?

Round 1: Advantage freshmen.

In their first weeks of business here, the newcomers upended the budget process, proposing cuts so deep they made even fellow Republicans balk. They handed Speaker John A. Boehner embarrassing defeats on several votes, and forced the party to pull a trade measure. This week, the group continued to push for even more cuts through more than 400 amendments to the spending measure for this year, igniting a sometimes raucous floor fight that on Wednesday led to the defeat of financing for a fighter jet engine program backed by the Republican leadership.

If this bothers people, well, the freshmen came to bother.

"We’re not enamored of this place," said Southerland, who added that it angered him that Washington seemed not to have suffered the effects of a protracted downturn.

"I came out of the private sector, a life that I enjoyed," he said. "I sleep in a bed every night with a woman I went to first grade with. I wasn’t running for a job. I was running — and I think you will find this to be the case with many of the freshmen — to produce results."

Emboldened by their early victories and strong in numbers, the newest lawmakers will almost certainly continue to try to exert their influence. From the coming fight over raising the nation’s debt limit to the entire political dynamic of budget debates, in which party members traditionally hang together in the service of broad philosophical priorities, all bets are off.

"There are consequences for our actions," said Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman from Arizona. "We’re not here to shut the government down, but it is going to take everyone to tango."

Many of the amendments offered by the Republicans in the budget fight this week seek to curtail myriad regulations that they say stifle business. But they tend to push their small-government philosophy further than many of their colleagues in the party. They have not been shy at poking around at programs for the military and other areas that Republicans tend to defend even in tough times.

"We can’t just make this an article of policy where we go after the sacred cows of the left," said Raul R. Labrador, a new congressman from Idaho.

Southerland said he believed that among his class there was not "this commitment to ideological dogma. We want to do the right thing. We don’t have an ax to grind with an agency or service."

In interview after interview, freshmen members said they had been repeatedly enjoined by their voters during their campaigns to cut, often without regard to specifics.

"I have spent very little time on the line items," said Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona.

What these lawmakers must brace for is the return to the districts where constituents, eager to see government shrink, may be less than pleased to learn that their representative voted to cut programs they actually like, such as those for low-income student grants, or heating assistance for poor home owners. Many of the freshmen said they had happily scheduled town hall meetings, and were ready to show voters what it all means.

"We have to tell the story of a shared sacrifice," Schweikert said.

Labrador said people in his district might be upset.

"But the message I have for my voters and people of Idaho is if we don’t make these tough decisions now, we will have nothing left over," he said.

Further, many freshmen said, they believe that government agencies and those who advocate for their programs exaggerate the effect of cuts.

"I have a certain cynicism when I hear an agency tell me that food inspection is the first thing they are going to cut," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina.

Some more senior Republicans are not so sure. Rep. Peter T. King of New York said he was deeply concerned about cuts to port security and mass transit.

"I was here in 1995," King said, referring to the last big Republicans revolution, "and I have seen the way these cuts are made."

He added, referring to the chairmen of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees: "Paul Ryan and Hal Rogers spent weeks coming up with these cuts. And to then double them overnight shows you something."

It is also clear that for now many members, especially those who came from jobs they enjoyed, seem almost manically unconcerned with re-election. Fingering his member’s lapel pin, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said: "I’m sure that there are people who, if you took this off of them, there would be a diminution in how they view themselves. A lot of their identity may be tied up in that."

A former federal prosecutor, Gowdy, whose two dogs are named Judge and Jury, said he had a better job back home anyway.

The freshmen members said they found the Republican leaders receptive to their enthusiasm.

"You have to give leadership credit," Schweikert said. "They really listened to us. I think it’s a combination of reasons. You have a class that is historic in size, and it is the difference between being in majority and minority. Also, a couple of the members of the leadership haven’t been here that long, so through their cultural eyes, maybe they related to this wave coming from across this country."


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