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House GOP Freshmen Speak Loudly, Carry Big Sticks

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC, center) speaks as he and a group of freshman Republican congressmen hold a news conference on the debt ceiling last month in front of the White House.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC, center) speaks as he and a group of freshman Republican congressmen hold a news conference on the debt ceiling last month in front of the White House.

There's one thing that freshman Republicans and the old-guard GOP leadership can agree on — the Class of 2010 fundamentally changed the focus of the debate over taxes and spending.

In a key test of their clout, the group of congressional newcomers largely stuck to their guns through tense negotiations, forcing a first-ever cap on discretionary spending and staving off tax increases.

"I cannot recall in my own experience or in my studies this ever happening before," said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University in Washington. "Such a group of backbenchers changing the debate in such a short amount of time is really incredible."


A Messy Feud

But changing the debate has meant a messy public feud that exposed a rift within the Republican Party. As House Speaker John Boehner sought to corral fellow GOP lawmakers to vote for his version of the debt-ceiling deal, he appeared unable at times to bring along the freshmen, many aligned with the Tea Party movement.

"I think a lot of these representatives wanted to see everything go to hell to expose the fallacies of government and to defeat President Obama," Lichtman said. "It's very difficult to reason with people like that. After all, what can you offer them?"

For Class of 2010 members such as Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), whose views closely align with the Tea Party, accommodating the GOP old guard is clearly less important than standing by his principles.

Just ahead of his "no" vote Monday on raising the debt ceiling, Gowdy said Boehner "has done the best job he can negotiating with himself — which is what he's been doing for the past six months. But you've got to vote the conscience of your constituents."


Last week, freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), in office for barely seven months, had harsh words for 28-year congressional veteran and former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

"Folks like Sen. John McCain have been in this town for too long, and they're the ones who have gotten us into this mess year after year after year," the Illinois congressman told CNN. "Folks like him ... have no clue as to the troubles Americans are going through right now. They don't understand this crisis anymore."

Time For A Victory Lap?

Mickey Edwards, who served as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma between 1977 and 1993, said the freshmen can rightly take a victory lap.

When they return to their home districts, "they can say, 'Look, we got a much more dramatic decrease in spending than you would have gotten otherwise,'" Edwards said. "I think they have a pretty good argument for that."

Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget at the centrist New America Foundation, agrees.

"Holding the debt ceiling hostage is not necessarily a good thing, but one can't fail to acknowledge that these freshman congressmen have focused our attention on an important issue," she said.

Even so, of the newcomers who also are members of the Tea Party caucus, nearly half backed the House Republican leadership and voted to approve raising the debt ceiling. One of those was Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee.

"It's not perfect. We have to continue to fight, fight, fight until we can shrink the size of government," Black said. "But you don't throw away the good to get perfect."

Black said she doesn't consider the debt-ceiling deal any kind of victory. She'd like to see a balanced budget amendment.

And the split among freshman Tea Party caucus members over Monday's vote?

"We didn't come up here to be a voting bloc," she said. "We came up here to represent our districts. I think you'll find the Republican freshman class remains overwhelmingly for smaller government."

But most freshmen, no matter how ideologically committed, can't resist being eventually pulled into the establishment orbit, Edwards said.

"Over time, there is a tendency to say, 'I am not here to represent a certain philosophy' and to come to grips with the fact that you can't get everything you want," he said.

Rick Lazio, a former Republican congressman who lost the GOP nomination for New York governor to a Tea Party-supported candidate, agreed.

Just before Monday's House vote, Lazio said representatives "have got to make decisions based on the world as it is, not as they'd like it to be."

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