By Russell Berman - 04/04/11 09:54 AM EDT
Each of the 87 House Republican freshmen faces the same choice heading into the climactic week of the 2011 budget battle — to fight or fall in line.
The freshman class, vaunted for its unprecedented size and its Tea-Party ties, has been caught between party leadership nudging it toward compromise on one end and anti-spending activists clamoring for a clash on the other.
The freshmen began the spending skirmish as the instigators: their demand for deeper cuts sent Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and GOP leaders back to the drawing board, resulting in a House bill that would slash $61 billion from federal spending — nearly twice the amount leadership had initially proposed.
Six weeks later, the stalemate goes on, delivering a sobering reality check to the increasingly frustrated insurgents.
“I had hoped we would be finished with this debate by now,” Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), one of two freshman representatives in the leadership, said in an interview.
“I didn’t come here to play patty-cake or to do business as usual in Washington,” added Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.).
“I have been very patient in learning the ropes,” he said. “And what I see is exactly what my constituents warned me about, and that is business as usual is counterproductive.”
Members such as Reps. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) and Allen West (R-Fla.) have vowed to oppose a final deal that does not defund Democratic priorities such as the healthcare law or Planned Parenthood.
Yet the past weeks have also exposed splinters in the freshman class, showing that the notion of a cohesive bloc is a myth. In many cases, the drive for deeper spending cuts has been led by veteran GOP conservatives such as Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mike Pence of Indiana and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
While some freshman lawmakers have veered closer to the Tea Party, many others have fully embraced the leadership’s strategy and message. Boehner’s repeated reminders about the limits of Republican power, for example, have seeped into their own talking points.
“I know that Republicans only control one-half of one-third of government,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), as he walked out of a freshman meeting with leadership, “so it’s very hard when we’re still in the minority in general to try to enact the cuts that the American people have sent us here to do.”
Just a handful of freshmen joined a Tea Party rally outside the Capitol last week, where they pledged to hold their ground against Senate Democrats, even if it resulted in a government shutdown.
In the midst of the rally, however, many more freshmen staged a separate kind of protest: A group of 30 — a full third of the class — signed a letter denouncing the “failure” of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass a spending bill.
Though both sides insisted the protest was not coordinated by party leadership, the message behind it was a clear echo of Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Boehner has used the freshman class to his advantage, encouraging attacks on Democrats and ensuring negotiations began on the GOP’s terms.
In a closed-door meeting Thursday, the Speaker urged freshmen to keep the pressure on Democrats, saying the heated rhetoric “has given me leverage” in the spending fight.
“We’ve got to keep the rhetoric and the heat on them,” Boehner said in remarks that could be heard outside the room.
The next day, the group of freshmen staged another protest event on the Senate steps.
While Boehner has winked at the tail-wagging-the-dog perception that exists about his relationship with the freshmen, he has emphasized his conservative bona fides in private meetings.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Boehner often refers to reports asserting that the freshmen have forced his hand on spending. “He’s laughed and said, ‘I’m hearing out there in the reports that I’m being painted into a corner. I appreciate you guys painting me into a corner, because I was standing here anyway,’ ” Lankford said. “This is already where he wants to be.”
In other ways, however, GOP leaders have been preparing the rookies for eventual compromise. In last week’s meeting, they stressed the consequences of a government shutdown with an emphasis on how it would be considerably different than the interruptions of 1995-96, when Congress had already appropriated money for some federal agencies. No appropriations bills are in effect past April 8.
And from the beginning, Boehner and Cantor have talked about having “three bites at the apple” on spending cuts — the 2011 funding, the 2012 budget and the vote to raise the federal debt limit. The current debate centers on roughly $50 billion — a minuscule slice of the overall deficit, which tops $1 trillion.
“I’ve come to realize that the bigger fight is about the budget, about entitlements,” said Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.), a freshman member of the Tea Party Caucus. The realization, he said, came a few weeks ago when Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) presented freshmen with a lecture on the budget.
“I can tell you it was an eye opener, learning the fiscal shape we are in,” Landry said.
With the fiscal 2012 budget looming, a debate has broken out between lawmakers like Pence who have urged the GOP to “pick a fight” on the 2011 funding, and others who argue the party needs to move on to next year’s budget, where the potential for much deeper cuts exists.
“I wouldn’t call it a divide,” said Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), president of the freshman class. “What we want to see is continual progress, and certainly there are some who want more cuts [and] some who would stake a claim elsewhere.”
Erik Wasson contributed reporting.