In a clear indication of the divisions facing Republicans in the new Congress, four House GOP freshmen made the pilgrimage to the Massachusetts Avenue headquarters of The Heritage Foundation Monday and offered sharp criticism of a party they don't seem quite comfortable belonging to.
"I do not blame liberals for the condition of the country," said newly elected Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., repeating one of his stump speech lines. "I blame us." Palmer was one of the Republicans who voted against John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, as speaker last week, and he and the other lawmakers invited to speak Monday at the conservative think tank offered plenty of criticism of the GOP and its complicity in business-as-usual Washington.
While that tactic isn't exactly new to politics — there's a long tradition of members running for Congress by running against it — it's the continued message that Washington and Republicans are "so screwed up," as Palmer put it, that more veteran GOP members of Congress may find surprising.
"People, I think, are looking for honesty," Palmer continued, with the caveat he thinks it's time for Republicans to stop talking about how bad things are and start talking about solutions.
He said Republicans can't fix what's wrong in Washington in one election — at one point, he posited it would take "20 to 25 years to get our fiscal cart out of the ditch" — but he said Republicans are going to "start that process, start that march toward freedom again."
Palmer roundly rejected the suggestion that the November elections were a mandate for Republicans to govern and get things done with Democrats. "This idea that Congress is broken and they wanted bipartisanship and stuff, that's not a winning message," he said.
Many establishment Republicans have taken 2014 election results as a message that voters wanted Republicans to pass legislation, to not shut down the government, to make government work. But the message interpreted by Republicans at The Heritage Foundation Monday seemed to be different.
Texas Republican John Ratcliffe, who successfully unseated the long-serving Republican incumbent, Ralph M. Hall, in a primary said the reason he was in Congress was a "discontent with the status quo" — a frustration with Republicans and Democrats.
"I don't have this opportunity because people have fallen back in love with Republicans," Ratcliffe said. "Out there in my district, people feel like the Republican Party has been focused too much on the top 1 percent."
Before Ratcliffe and the other freshmen took the stage, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas spoke. He was followed by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who delivered an extemporaneous speech about "crony capitalism," fighting the renewal of the Export-Import Bank and making sure that cutting corporate tax rates was not the first thing Republicans in Congress accomplished. Ratcliffe associated himself with Jordan's remarks.
"The next two years is an audition for the Republican Party — my party," Ratcliffe said.
Virginia Republican Dave Brat, who unseated former Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a stunning primary upset, also offered an endorsement of a new direction. Brat stressed a fiscal trajectory leading to massive amounts of debt, and he reiterated his campaign message of ethics in government.
But Brat, who also voted against Boehner for speaker, seemed to think establishment Republicans — and, indeed, GOP leadership — were hearing the message from voters. He mentioned the "cromnibus" spending bill and the outpouring from constituents. And he expressed optimism over the latest immigration bill that Republicans released on Jan. 9. "I think they got the message," he said.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., offered similar, contained optimism. "I hope you're going to see a different Congress," he said, striking perhaps the most conciliatory tone on the panel.
Loudermilk suggested Republicans have to be patient, that politics is downstream of culture and that the GOP needs to take a lesson from Democrats of unifying behind common goals.
"You don't turn a battleship around on a dime," Loudermilk said, noting it would be a "slow and frustrating process" and that Republicans shouldn't "assassinate" each other if they don't accomplish their goals in the first go-around.
While that's a message that GOP leadership has carefully been trying to impress on their newest members, it wasn't yet clear if the mostly conservative audience — or even the conservative lawmakers sitting beside him — could totally agree.
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