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The conservative freshman Senators who rode into Washington as rock stars of the 2010 elections are beginning to find their comfort zone, sounding off this week after long silences on the budget, the president and even foreign policy.
For Republican rookies — such as Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.) — this summer's all-consuming debt ceiling debate and foreign policy controversies have opened a window that's part redux of their tea-party-inspired glory days on the trail and part awkward learning experience of the ways of a chamber that they still don't completely understand.
Freshman GOP stunts have run the gamut from Johnson's short-lived filibuster on the Senate floor Tuesday to a full-fledged campaign Wednesday on a doomed-to-fail balanced budget amendment and a freshmen-led charge to keep the Senate in session through the July Fourth recess.
The most telling part about the attention and momentum gained from Johnson's floor antics Tuesday was that it was largely unplanned. Top GOP leadership aides said they had no idea Johnson was going to stage a filibuster, and his initial objections prevented his fellow Republicans from speaking on the Democrats' failure to pass a budget. Still, GOP aides said they enjoyed Johnson's brief seizure of the floor both for its spirit and for the lesson on the limits of procedural power the Wisconsin Republican learned in its swift end. Senate Democrats easily halted Johnson's attempted filibuster with a quorum call vote.
Though none of these freshmen is under the illusion he will be principal in the ongoing budget talks to avert government default, it doesn't mean they aren't trying to influence their own party's rhetoric.
"Obviously, there's a formal process between the leader and the White House in negotiations that we're not involved in, but that floor is available to us. The amendatory process is available to us. I think you're going to see an increasing amount of assertiveness," Rubio said in a brief interview. "We're watching now as this issue unfolds that there's hardly any activity and a complete lack of [a] sense of urgency behind it."
Rubio attended a hastily called press conference Wednesday with Johnson, Paul, fellow freshman Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and more senior Senators such as Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and John Cornyn (Texas). The group was highlighting its call for the July Fourth recess to be canceled to give Congress time to craft a budget deal, as well as hailing Johnson's floor stand as an inspiration.
GOP freshmen have been vocal in closed-door caucus meetings and at White House meetings, according to aides and Members in the room. The Conference's balanced budget amendment campaign was designed specifically to play out next week in Senators' home turfs.