World and Nation

Strong in number and spirit, Republican freshmen hold sway

WASHINGTON — The last speaker was Rep. Steve Southerland, freshman lawmaker from Florida, and so he dug deep. Drawing on the two things that propel him through each day — his experience as funeral home operator, and his general loathing of all things Washington — Southerland politely lit into Republican House leaders one day last week, explaining that he had not come to Washington to whack the federal budget this year by one dollar less than the $100 billion he had pledged to cut in his campaign.

“I wanted them to hear my heart, and not just my words,” recounted Southerland, one of scores of freshmen lawmakers — there are seven Republicans from his home state alone — who pressed for, and prevailed, in crafting a more aggressive plan to cut government spending.

The big question after the midterm elections: Would this giant class of 87 Republican newbies in the House, many with little or no elected experience, change the ways of Washington or would Washington change them?

In their first weeks of business here, the newcomers upended the budget process, proposing cuts so deep they made even fellow Republicans balk. They handed Speaker John A. Boehner embarrassing defeats on several votes, and forced the party to pull a trade measure. This week, the group continued to push for even more cuts through more than 400 amendments to the spending measure for this year, igniting a sometimes raucous floor fight that on Wednesday led to the defeat of financing for a fighter jet engine program backed by the Republican leadership.

If this bothers people, well, the freshmen came to bother.

“We’re not enamored of this place,” said Southerland, who added that it angered him that Washington seemed not to have suffered the effects of a protracted downturn.

“I came out of the private sector, a life that I enjoyed,” he said. “I sleep in a bed every night with a woman I went to first grade with. I wasn’t running for a job. I was running — and I think you will find this to be the case with many of the freshmen — to produce results.”

Emboldened by their early victories and strong in numbers, the newest lawmakers will almost certainly continue to try to exert their influence. From the coming fight over raising the nation’s debt limit to the entire political dynamic of budget debates, in which party members traditionally hang together in the service of broad philosophical priorities, all bets are off.

“There are consequences for our actions,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, a freshman from Arizona.