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GOP freshmen lawmakers face a test

As Congress returns Tuesday, lawmakers may be pressed to compromise on slashing the federal budget — the issue that swept many of them into office.

March 01, 2011|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), shown at his swearing-in in January, said proposed budget cuts were merely a "token" in the fight against the deficit.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), shown at his swearing-in in January, said proposed… (Charles Dharapak, AP )

Reporting from Flagstaff, Ariz. — Nearly a week after he voted to slash more than $61 billion from the federal budget — billed as the largest such package of cuts in modern history — Rep. Paul Gosar returned to his Arizona district, where the potential effects were becoming clear.

There will be no earmark money for a flood control program in Flagstaff. If the cuts are approved, community grants for the city's homeless shelters and food shelves would be cut by 60%. Up to 20 mentally ill and elderly residents could lose their public housing support. University officials predict less financial aid for students at Northern Arizona University and the elimination of the AmeriCorps program at the school. The public radio station would take a $250,000 hit.

Local officials raised questions about the future of a new jail for Kayenta Township, an isolated and poor community on Navajo Nation lands near the Utah border. Cuts to Indian Health Service programs have officials there also worried about plans for a new hospital.

Gosar's "decisions are not representing our needs, our wishes, our hopes," said Hygi Waetermans, the town manager. "It seems like the disenfranchised people, those who don't have a safety net or a buffer, will suffer the blow."

Democrats ran radio ads and began a barrage of automated phone calls, highlighting Gosar's vote to trim a program that helped local government pay for police.

Gosar heard the complaints but was unshaken. On a visit during last week's congressional break, he was already moving on to the next target.

The cuts were merely a "token" in the fight against a $1.5-trillion deficit, Gosar told a group of college Republicans from Northern Arizona University. "You can't cut enough. … You've got to address your entitlements," meaning Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

That hard-charging approach is a hallmark of the new class of House Republicans, who promise to reverse course on years of growing deficits and to rewrite the government's role in American life by reducing it.

As Gosar and his colleagues return to the Capitol on Tuesday, their commitment will be tested. Faced with solid Democratic opposition in the Senate, Republican House leaders over the weekend suggested a compromise that would keep the government from shutting down and put off the reckoning for two weeks.

During that time, the pressure undoubtedly will mount on Gosar and his fellow freshman budget hawks to cede ground on the very issue that catapulted them into office.

For his part, Gosar is still buoyed by a chorus of "attaboys" he heard at a town hall meeting in Casa Grande, where "tea party" adherents urged him to cut further into the federal budget.

"Whatever you have to do, whatever pain you have to inflict on me, you inflict it, so that my granddaughters have a future," Harold Vangilder, a local activist and talk show host, told the congressman at the meeting.

Gosar, a Flagstaff dentist whose low-key demeanor and trim frame give no hint of his college rugby days, has seized on that comment. He acknowledges that the final budget cuts will be less than the Republicans' $61-billion proposal, but he's cagey about revealing how much less he would accept.

Gosar and his Republican colleagues believe they have the momentum in a fight that will go beyond this year's spending. With the 2012 budget and a vote to raise the debt ceiling waiting in the wings, House Republicans are in a position to transform the federal budget.

"We're at that adult moment right now, here it is," Gosar said, repeating a Republican talking point with giddy sincerity.

Budget cutting is a risky strategy for many GOP freshmen. More than two dozen come from districts that voted for Barack Obama, and many more, like Gosar, come from districts with a history of competitive races. Polls show Americans are broadly committed to the notion of deficit reduction, but their support dwindles when the details are spelled out.

Gosar campaigned on a broad promise of "more freedom, less government." He hammered his opponent, incumbent Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, on her vote supporting the healthcare law. On his website, he promises to fight for conservative principles and the struggling middle class "just like [he] fought cavities."

Gosar had no experience as an office holder before jumping in the race. He benefited from a network of dentist donors, including a dentist from Wasilla, Alaska, who helped him win Sarah Palin's endorsement.

Since landing in Washington, Gosar has made a point of trying to shun Washington's trappings. He lives in his office, using a storage space as a makeshift kitchen and showering in the gym. Although he's a father of three and recently sold his dental practice, he refused to accept the congressional health insurance plan.

In the freewheeling budget debate two weeks ago, Gosar aligned himself with the House budget hawks.

These are not days when a lawmaker's primary job is to bring home the bacon, Gosar said.

"That's still part of my job, but I look at it differently," he said. "If we continue the way we're going right now we're not going to have any choices down the road. We have to learn to do more with less."

Though the freshman class has earned a reputation as a raucous band of kamikaze politicians, Gosar offers a more nuanced picture — a politician walking the line between ideological purity and his future electability.

"There are a lot of freshmen that just don't care about the consequences of not being elected," Gosar said in an interview last week. Asked whether he was among those, he said: "Listen, I said what I was going to do. I'm going to do it. And if I deliver on that, my reelection will be just fine."

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