House Freshmen Not as Defiant as Their Reputation Suggests

John Boehner

But an analysis of voting patterns on the most contentious bills in the 112th Congress shows that House members of the Republican Study Committee — a group of both veterans and newcomers that meets weekly to hammer out a conservative agenda — have cast the bulk of “no” votes on big bills, including those important to Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

The freshmen who have joined the study committee — which was founded in 1973 — play an important role in its renewed clout, having increased its membership to 163 from roughly 110 two years ago. As a group, however, the freshmen are less homogenous and less apt to buck the leadership than the study committee itself is as a whole.

In the surprising failure of a bill early last year to extend provisions of the Patriot Act, 18 (or 69 percent) of the Republicans who rejected the measure were committee members and only 9 (35 percent) were freshmen. In a defeated spending measure that included disaster aid for states pounded by tornadoes, 94 percent of the 48 Republican “no” votes came from committee members and only 40 percent from freshmen.

“A lot of people think it’s freshmen,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House whip, whose job it is to persuade members, using pizza, pressure and occasionally spleen, to take tough votes. “It’s not. It’s older members.”

The perception that freshmen have led the push back against Mr. Boehner and Democrats has helped them to maintain an image as a group with intense legislative prowess to be reckoned with. Yet for freshmen running for re-election in tough districts, that reputation could now serve as an albatross.

Unlike many veterans of the study committee, many freshmen serve in swing districts. The majority of the incumbents singled out by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are freshmen. “That’s because they’re vulnerable,” Representative Steve Israel of New York, the committee chairman, told reporters.

For Mr. Boehner and the rest of the party’s leaders, the study committee has been a source of perpetual pain; its members, particularly a staunch 40 or so like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, Representative Steve King of Iowa and Representative Tom McClintock of California, frequently vote against the party leadership and have been vocal in their displeasure with House bills.

In an interview last year, as his conference fought over the extension of a payroll tax holiday, Mr. Boehner said that he sometimes longed to shake some members who would not compromise with the party that controlled two-thirds of Washington’s legislative process.

Last week, Mr. Boehner told Peggy Noonan, a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, “My problem is with a few senior members who, they always want more.”

The vote to reauthorize parts of the Patriot Act offered one of the earliest examples of what Mr. Boehner is talking about. House leaders assumed passage and put it down for an expedited vote that required two-thirds approval for passage. But 26 Republicans joined Democrats in voting the measure down; all were members of the committee, while only nine were House freshmen.

On measures to continue financing the government and raise the debt ceiling — in which a government shutdown and default were narrowly averted — freshmen Republicans provided more than half of their party’s “no” votes just once, while committee members routinely provided 70 percent to 100 percent of opposition votes.

Still, freshmen often serve as the group’s public face.  “I love Jim Jordan,” said Representative Joe Walsh of Illinois, one of the group’s loudest voices and most defiant of leadership. “There are 87 of us freshmen, but only 11 or 12 who are hard-core, Tea Party conservatives.”

For some Republican members, things can get a little too hard-core.

Last July, as the debt ceiling fight was in full flower, a committee staff member sent an e-mail to outside conservative groups urging them to pressure members to vote against Mr. Boehner’s debt deal.  Some House Republicans were enraged by an attack on their own by their own.

“I don’t think Republicans should be attacking other Republicans,” said Representative Michael G. Grimm of New York, who remains a member.

Since then, over a dozen members have resigned from the study group, including a few freshmen. In interviews, some said that the episode had angered them and that they had tired of the committee’s attempts to define who is worthy of being called a conservative. Most were afraid to tackle the group on the record.

“I would just rather not talk about that,” said Representative Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who has left the committee. “It’s just sometimes you have personal feelings that you’d rather not talk about.”

Others said that the dues — $2,500 for the first year and $5,000 a year after that — were too high at a time when fiscal restraint had hit House budgets. “I have to make some priority decisions,” said Representative Brian P. Bilbray of California. “I have kept my overhead and cost down, and I have to lead through example.”

Many of the members who have stayed say the group offers an intellectual atmosphere, but they, too, can chafe at the orthodoxy.

“It’s great process,” said Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma. “The frustration I still have is over who gets to define the term conservative. That’s one of the things that R.S.C. struggles with. The fact is, you have these very conservative members who don’t think alike on every issue.”

Derek Willis contributed reporting.

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