Eighty-seven Republican freshmen stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday, bringing with them an unbridled enthusiasm for conservative reform. Rep. Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel from Florida’s southeast coast, tells National Review Online that he and others are more than ready to rattle Washington — and the House GOP leadership. “I’ve been in combat and I’ve been shot at,” he smiles, explaining his dauntless attitude.
West, like many of his first-term colleagues, was a Tea Party favorite on the campaign trail. As he settles into life on the Hill, he tells us that preserving the spirit and promise of the midterm sweep will be a challenge. Still, he notes, House GOP leaders sense that the largest incoming class of GOP legislators since 1938 will not retreat to the backbenches. West points to his own experience as an example: Already, he has publicly tangled with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor over the House schedule, pushing Cantor, on Sunday news shows and elsewhere, to keep Congress in session longer.
Tough votes ahead, on raising the debt ceiling and on the budget, could also be rumbles. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House GOP whip, tells NRO that he is confident that this class will not only speak up, but also help the leadership team craft effective policy. House GOP leaders, he says, want freshmen to be partners, and share the newcomers’ distaste for the big-spending ways of Congresses past. One early gesture, a nod to the principles upon which freshmen campaigned, will be the Thursday reading of the Constitution on the House floor.
“Not only does this class represent generational change, but it is going to change the makeup of government itself,” McCarthy says. “They haven’t yet performed, but they’ve already put their fingerprints on this Congress. They have changed the mindset.” By year’s end, he predicts, “you are going to be so impressed by them; they’ll have become household names.”
Indeed, firebrand freshmen are making noise — not only on talk shows, but in the elite House committees that shape floor proceedings. “I’ve had an opportunity to make two presentations during their orientation, and I was very impressed with the caliber of interest, the intellectual curiosity, and the very life experiences that they’re bringing,” says Rep. David Dreier (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Dreier’s influential committee, which is considered a plum landing spot for any member, welcomes four first-termers onto its roster this week — Rep. Tim Scott (S.C.), Rep. Rob Woodall (Ga.), and two Floridians, Rep. Daniel Webster and Rep. Rich Nugent. That’s a big difference from the Republican wave of 1994, when Republicans added only one freshman to Rules. “We wanted to make sure that we had the new members represented well on the A-committees with us,” Dreier says.
House Speaker John Boehner has placed numerous freshmen in top-notch slots, from the Republican Steering Committee, which elects committee chairmen, to Judiciary, Ways and Means, and Appropriations. But freshman tentacles reach beyond the committees: Representative Scott, the first black Republican the Palmetto State has sent to Congress since Reconstruction, and Rep. Kristi Noem (R., S.D.), a telegenic 39-year-old, have been tapped for newly created seats at the leadership table.
On Wednesday, as members were sworn in and celebrated their new roles with family and friends on the Hill, the atmosphere, for most, was low-key, with easy laughs and plenty of finger food. The night before, a handful of freshmen had gone a step farther, partying away at the swanky W Hotel downtown, where country star LeAnn Rimes performed as part of a GOP fundraiser.
Such pleasantness, however, could be short-lived. With fiscal conservatism at the heart of the freshmen’s cause, finding a way to balance their goals with the political realities of Washington will be the early test. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, tells NRO that the spring vote to raise the debt ceiling will be a difficult choice for many.
The debt vote is slated to occur “a little earlier than we had thought, because of the payroll-tax holiday,” Ryan says. “It will probably be around when the [continuing resolution to fund the government] expires, so you can see a kind of confluence of appropriations and the debt ceiling coming together.” The question, he says, will not be simply a “yes” or “no” on raising the nation’s debt ceiling, but “what we can extract in exchange for it, that gets us pointed in the right direction fiscally.”
“There are a lot of ideas out there, and we’re going to have to figure out which ones are the best,” he says. “You have to have a unified party to get that.” Increased spending cuts, for instance, are one of the areas mentioned by staffers as a possible point of compromise.
“We’re going to have lots of debates, lots of conversations, lots of disagreements,” says Scott. “In the end, I think we’ll find ourselves on the same page [as GOP leaders] on most of the primary issues that the American people want addressed.” But on the debt ceiling, he says, “Until we find a compelling reason to vote for the debt ceiling, we won’t.”
Nothing has been decided, even though Boehner and others in leadership hope to avoid a government shutdown similar to the one that occurred in 1995, when Republicans last took over the reins in the lower chamber. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), for one, is urging the budget hawks in the House’s freshman class not to back down, even if it leads to a faceoff. “None of us wants a government shutdown, but it’s not something that we should be so afraid of that we’re willing to cave in to more debt,” DeMint said in an interview with Human Events. “I think America expects us to fight more spending, more debt.”
House GOP leaders, aware of potential fissures on budget strategy within the caucus, are telling reporters this week that they will, with gusto, follow up on their commitment to cut spending. “We have committed in the Pledge to America, and we have continued to commit that we are going to [bring] discretionary non-defense spending down to ’08 levels,” said Cantor in an interview with National Journal. “I am looking to make sure we do that in an expeditious manner. So there’s no wavering on that.”
Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) met with the incoming class for the first time on Tuesday afternoon at a Republican conference meeting. The five-termer from the Philadelphia suburbs, who has survived many close races, pushes back on the notion that freshmen will be rabble-rousers and unable to deal with a bit of cold water being poured on their ambitions — be it from the slow-moving Senate or elsewhere. “I think everybody has a sense of realism here,” he says. “We can only do what we can do in the House; we’re going to run a lot of issues up the flagpole.”
“We will not always get it right,” echoed Boehner in his inaugural speech Wednesday. “We will not always agree on what is right. A great deal of scar tissue has built up on both sides of the aisle.” Nevertheless, he said, “hard work and tough decisions will be required of the 112th Congress. No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions.”
Regardless of the chatter about the rocky votes ahead, conservatives should keep their hopes up, says Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who has huddled with numerous freshmen this week. King, a top ally of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), the founder of the Tea Party Caucus, says this class is itching to put conservative thinking into action, not to posture or fold. From repealing President Obama’s health-care law to slashing spending, this crew of “new blood,” he says, is first-class.
“It’s a different personality, a different time,” King says. “The media will be competing to identify the leading members of the freshman class — they might take over the media. If they do, and drive a strong, conservative message, great, more power to them. . . . The energy that’s there, we sorely needed that.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.