House GOP frosh grapple with budget vote

The class of Republicans who ran on a never-say-compromise platform were on the eve of being asked to do just that. And the pressure was showing.

Republican freshmen in the House used words like “heartburn,” “frustration,” and “undecided” on Wednesday as they wrestled with how to vote on a bipartisan spending plan--arguably the most consequential of their short careers in Washington.

“I am as undecided as a human being can get,” said Rep. Joe Walsh, one of the dozens of Republicans who rode into office on a wave of small-government fervor in November. “As a negotiation and a first step, (House Speaker John) Boehner and Republicans won.”

On the other hand: “But, there’s such a part of me that wants to do more,” he said.

The spending plan was negotiated last week under threat of a government shutdown and a vote in favor will be many Republican lawmakers’ first major encounter with the uncomfortable business of governing. With conservative activists looking on, Republican lawmakers will have to endorse a plan that’s roughly $20 billion short of the spending cuts they sought and leaves out many of the policy provisions they deemed critical.

But it also walks the party off the brink of the government shutdown--something some hard-line conservatives of the tea party movement had urged but most voters would have opposed.

While Republican leaders in the House and Senate Democrats shook hands on the deal, they’ve had to spend the last five days making the case to their rank-and-file to ensure its passage.

For Republicans leaders in the House, that means winning a significant portion of the 87 new lawmakers--or relying heavily on Democrats to pass the bill. House leaders were still counting heads late in the day on Wednesday.

Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican freshman from northern Michigan, said he could only offer leaders a “probably yes.”

“We’re going shut it down over just $20 billion? I don’t see the sense in that. I don’t see the sense in trying to get more at this point,” he said. “But I got a lot of tea party support. I’ve got to defend myself to them. It’s not easy. It’s not easy.”

Many members have been reaching out to take the temperature of the activists back home in teleconferences and private phone calls. Rep. Bill Huizenga, another undecided Republican from Michigan, was reading comments on his Facebook page.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais a Republican from Tennessee got a conference call with a conservative group Tuesday night to go over the major portions of the bill. He was generally pleased by their reaction.

“I didn’t hear any chorus of boos over the phone,” he said. DesJarlais said he will be voting for the compromise.

While many are disappointed by the top line number--$38 billion in reductions--they have found other pieces of the bill to like. The bill cuts funding for four of the Obama administration’s policy “czars” -- a favorite punching bag on the right. It cuts funding for the IRS and forces a vote in the Senate on funding for abortion. The provisions will soften the blow with some conservatives.

It was not enough for Rep. Tim Huelskamp, (R-Kan.) who said he was especially rattled by an independent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office released Wednesday. The report showed that while the bill would reduce Congress’ spending authority by $38 billion, its immediate impact on the deficit was minimal.

“It’s the same old Washington math -- fuzzy math. I’m very disappointed in that,” said Huelskamp, who already planned to reject the bill.

At a closed-door meeting with freshman Wednesday afternoon, House leaders tried to reassure members that the cuts were real.

“The record is clear:  if House Republicans hadn’t stood with the American people, the Democrats who run Washington would have spent $315 billion more in the next ten years,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement. “CBO confirms a $78.5 billion cut from President Obama’s budget this year, and nearly $40 billion in lower spending since House Republicans took the majority in the House of Representatives.”

The question for some wasn’t just about accepting the diminished spending cuts, but how a vote showing a deeply divided GOP effect in future budget battles.

Freshmen made up less than half the 54 Republicans who already bucked leadership by voting against temporary measures to fund the government as spending negotiations continued last month.

Walsh was in that group.

“I really believe the fact that 54 Republicans voted no helped the Speaker – it gave him courage, it gave him strength,” he said. “That is why I’m so torn.”

Others noted that a sharply divided vote dependent on Democrats could only weaken the speaker’s position in future budget battles.

“Sure it could be easy to vote no now, because there’s no problem. There will be enough Democrats to pass this bill. But that’s not going to help Mr. Boehner either in future negotiations,” said Benishek. “You know, it’s not like when you get here all of the sudden, three months later and you’re an expert. I’m no expert on this.”

Watching from outside the Beltway, Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and likely presidential aspirant, called on House members to vote no.

"The more we learn about the budget deal the worse it looks.  When you consider that the federal deficit in February alone was over $222 billion, to have actual cuts less than the $38 billion originally advertised is just not serious," Pawlenty said. "It's no surprise that President Obama and Senator Reid forced this budget, but it should be rejected. America deserves better."

twitter: @kathleenhennessey

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