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House GOP leaders have given their freshman class a major role in setting the Conference’s fiscal policies, putting Congress’ newest Members at the center of the spending and debt fights that will consume Washington for months.
While Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) has been the public face of the GOP’s spending and debt efforts and set the overall message, behind the scenes Speaker John Boehner’s (Ohio) leadership team has been working closely with several freshmen to craft spending, budget and debt reduction policies.
With 89 members and representing about a third of the GOP Conference, this year’s freshman class is also united philosophically around reducing government spending and debt and has used that to leverage a powerful role in policy development.
“I am very impressed with how sophisticated this freshman class is,” said Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who along with Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (Ill.) and Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) has been holding “listening sessions” with freshmen on the budget, the debt and a continuing resolution to keep the government funded.
Those sessions were intended to provide a basic education to new lawmakers on the intricacies of how the House sets spending and budget levels, but they have quickly become a forum for freshmen to influence the party’s strategy and policy.
Rep. Michael Grimm (N.Y.) said he has been “pleasantly surprised to see just how open the leadership is to allowing the freshmen to take the lead on some things. I expected, to a certain extent, to have a battle on my hands.”
Grimm said that when he arrived in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, he anticipated leadership would say, “‘Sit down and look pretty while we tell you how things work here.’ And that’s not how it’s been at all.”
Rep. Sean Duffy (Wis.) said the meetings have helped Members better understand the financial problems facing the nation but have also been a venue for expressing their concerns.
Ryan “is able to lay out to the freshman class what happened with the debt limit,” Duffy said, while “the freshman class gets to dial in and say ... ‘We can’t vote for a debt limit increase’” that doesn’t include significant spending reductions and other reforms.
The meetings have also provided leadership a better understanding of what the freshman Members will and will not support.
McCarthy said he takes insights from the freshmen back to the Republican leadership. Understanding where the freshmen are is critical for leadership, McCarthy said, since “we’re in a better position to know where our Conference is.”
The relationship has already had a direct impact on specific GOP policies, Duffy and others said.
Although specific spending proposals won’t be unveiled until next month when the House starts debate on the continuing resolution, last week’s budget resolution debate provides a glimpse of the process.
Leadership originally wanted to set spending levels for the CR at 2008 levels and allow them to be prorated for the remaining part of the fiscal year. But most freshmen had campaigned with a specific call for a $100 million cut to spending, which would be unlikely under the 2008 cut levels. Additionally, the Republican Study Committee — which has also been working with freshmen — was pushing for language setting the cuts at 2006 levels.
In the end, leadership settled on language calling for cuts at 2008 levels or below. “The ’08 or lower came from the listening sessions,” Duffy said Friday.
Aides and lawmakers said the freshman class’s ability to have an influence on the process is partly a result of its size. Representing a third of the GOP in the House gives them an enormous voting bloc, particularly early in the 112th Congress when they are all still defined mostly by their lack of experience.
“We’re a very strong team,” Rep. Jeff Denham said Friday. The California Republican said that very early on, “leadership recognized that this freshman class is working very strongly together.”
Denham also noted that despite having 89 members in the class, “we’re very together” on the need to make significant spending cuts. Not only do they espouse support for spending cuts generally, but they are willing to push those cuts even in their own districts, he said.
“These freshmen didn’t run for one little thing in their district,” McCarthy said.
Republicans also said putting freshmen in influential roles is part of Boehner’s broader leadership style, which is much less top-down than previous Speakers.
“Speaker Boehner’s leadership style is based on the idea that all House Republicans are part of a team, and there is a place for everyone to contribute. The team finds consensus on shared goals and moves toward them. He is the coach — he expects the quarterback and the linemen and everyone else do their jobs,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Regardless of how they have gotten into the center of the fight, the freshmen say they are grateful for the chance. “I came here to do a job. I didn’t come here to sit on the bench,” Grimm said.