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Elected as a hard-liner, House conservative faces crucial test

How strongly must freshmen like Rep. Frank Guinta of New Hampshire hold out on the debt ceiling — and risk federal default — to appease people who voted for them?

July 25, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) is among freshman conservatives in the House facing a tough test in the fight over whether to raise the federal debt limit.
Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) is among freshman conservatives in the House… (Jim Cole, Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — In any other non-election year, a freshman congressman might have found safe haven on the sidelines of a Little League game during the political doldrums of late July.

Fat chance today.

With the economy teetering and the government facing a potentially calamitous default, Rep. Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) is talking shop nearly everywhere he goes — and that includes a recent game between teams sponsored by Wieczorek Insurance and Jerome's Deli in Manchester.

"Parents of kids will come and say, 'Congressman, I know you're here with your kids. I know you're with your wife. But don't raise the debt ceiling!' " said Guinta, 40, who went to see his 6-year-old play.

It's a warning ringing in the ears of freshman Republicans across the country. Many are caught squarely between hard-line conservatives with "tea party" allegiances in their districts, who want Congress to hold the line on spending, and the political reality of Washington, where pragmatists say compromise is necessary to govern.

Many new GOP lawmakers ran for office pledging to reverse the rising trajectory of spending that has again pushed the federal government against its legal borrowing limit. They used the debt as a bludgeon against Democratic opponents, vowed to slash the budget, and won in historic numbers in November.

Now, with days left for Congress to raise the debt ceiling, the "put up or shut up" moment is at hand.

The pressure on freshmen like Guinta, an amiable former mayor of Manchester, is especially acute. He is neither a political renegade certain to buck GOP leadership and reject a deal, nor a moderate with little political capital at stake.

For those Republicans, a "heck no" position looks increasingly risky. Polls show voters are frustrated by the drawn-out debt talks. Voters in general look favorably at the broad deficit reduction approach backed by the White House, although those negotiations collapsed in acrimony Friday and no deal had been reached as of Sunday evening.

Moreover, lawmakers are hearing from the party's pro-business base, which is urging them to cut a deal to avoid the potential economic peril of federal default.

Assuming a deal emerges in time to avoid hitting the debt ceiling, GOP leaders will need lawmakers like Guinta to pass it.

Many of his colleagues have all but taken themselves out of the debate. Some argue that White House officials have exaggerated the consequences of failing to meet the Aug. 2 deadline. A national tea party group lobbied congressional offices this week, contending that the debt limit should not be raised under any circumstances.

"If they — especially the freshmen and the Republicans — if they give in to a weaselly deal, I think people are going to hold them accountable at the ballot box," said Jenny Beth Martin, a leader of Tea Party Patriots.

But like many other Republicans, Guinta has been careful not to say "never." To vote for a debt ceiling increase, he would need to see "significant" spending cuts and "budgetary reforms," he said. He rejects higher tax rates.

Guinta's preferred solution was the "cut, cap and balance" bill: a House-passed GOP plan to cut spending, cap federal budgets and impose controls through a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. As expected, the bill died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The measure marked a rallying point for conservatives and an attempt to shield House Republicans from fire from the right.

When Jerry DeLemus, a New Hampshire tea party organizer, expressed concern over the debt talks, for example, Guinta's office sent him the text of the bill. He quickly approved.

DeLemus says it's simple: Cut spending and don't raise taxes.

"I want to see them hold the line," he said. "Stand firm. They were sent to do a job — do that job. They may not win that battle. But let 'em know you were there."

But House Republicans now risk bearing the brunt of the blame for the standoff with the White House.

"We're getting blamed already," said Guinta, pointing to a poll that shows sagging approval ratings for Congress. "People are rightly so frustrated with what they're watching. I'm here, and I'm frustrated."

Like 60 other House Republicans, Guinta hails from a district that Obama won in 2008. His election just two years later was evidence of a shift of independent voters, who tend to be moved by fiscal issues.

In his campaign last year, Guinta hammered the Democratic incumbent for runaway spending and pointed to the nation's rising debt as Exhibit A. The message resonated.

Since taking office, Guinta has faced pressure from both sides. He met with tea party groups that urged him to hold the line. He also met with a business round table, where bankers warned him of the dangers of default.

And now Guinta sounds like a therapist as much as a politician.

At his son's Little League game, for example, he challenged the parents who urged him not to raise the debt ceiling.

"You do know if we don't raise the debt ceiling, we're going to be short for that month and every month following? Do you want me to shut down the government?" he told them, describing the encounter later in an interview.

"What I hear from people is it's not the debt ceiling itself. It's the spending," he added. "The debt ceiling is the tangible thing, but it's the spending people are angry about."

Guinta said he's open to tax code reforms that lower rates and eliminate loopholes. He can convince tea party activists to come along on that, he said. Just as he persuaded the parents at the baseball game — most of them, anyway.

"Two I did. One I didn't," he said. ?

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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