Debt debate puts GOP freshmen on strikingly different paths

July 26, 2011

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(WBEZ/file)
Bob Dold is one of five freshman Republicans in the U.S. House from Illinois.

A group of conservative Republicans in the U.S. House has come out against a debt limit plan proposed by the party's leader, Speaker John Boehner. They include an outspoken freshman from Illinois, Rep. Joe Walsh. Walsh has been all over cable TV, and his spitfire style differs strongly from a fellow freshman Republican in a neighboring district.

Joe Walsh won his ticket to Congress by just 290 votes. The 15-hundredths of a percentage point upset over Democrat Melissa Bean was credited to the Tea Party movement. He's shown zero interest in playing it safe, and a lot of interest in getting attention.

"President Obama, quit lying," Walsh said recently. He taped a video and posted it on YouTube, accusing the president of manufacturing the debt ceiling deadline, and claiming the country will have enough cash to cover its immediate needs. "I know you have a willing media that protects everything you say or do, but have you no shame, sir?"

Walsh is a prolific user of Twitter, and an eager guest on cable news, where he's accused the president of "acting like a ten year old." He's staked out a far right position over the country's rising debt and the debt limit, dismissing a fail-safe plan from Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell as "cut, run and hide", and rejecting the most recent proposal from Speaker Boehner.

"The crisis is so severe that it demands...a game-changing solution," Walsh said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "And with all due respect to my speaker, this is not a game changing solution."

Walsh is insisting that any debt ceiling increase be tied to congressional passage of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And he has no patience for a proposed bipartisan commission to craft future budget cuts.

"We're past that kind of stuff," Walsh said. "We're losing this great country of ours."

"I appreciate Joe Walsh's honesty and his frankness," said Bob Cook, who's been watching the debt ceiling debate from Lake County, Illinois. He's Republican Party chair in the county, which spans both the 8th District, represented by Walsh, and the 10th, represented by another freshman Republican, Rep. Bob Dold.

When I asked Cook which congressman has done more to inspire party activists, he took pains to say good things about both. But his words contained a telling enthusiasm gap.

"Joe Walsh is going to get in their face and confront them and go after it. He's an open book. 100-percent, let's go after it," Cook said.

Contrast that to Cook's cautious description of Bob Dold:

"The thing about Bob is he is so competent," Cook said. "And he's just...you know, he's not...he's going to think everything through and make sure what he's doing is exactly the right thing to do."

Dold represents the same North Shore swing district that now-U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk did. And his style is much like Kirk's - balanced, moderate and sometimes nuanced to the point of cagey.

"I'm looking to try to see if I can't work with anybody that will sit down and work with me to try to solve the problems that we face," Dold said Tuesday.

Dold, like Walsh, talks of the problems facing the country if the budget isn't cut. But he's called for a bipartisan deal, left himself wiggle room on taxes and taken a strikingly softer tone than Walsh. He's also refused to comment on his fellow freshman's rhetoric.

"Joe is going to do what Joe wants to do, as are the other freshmen," Dold said. "What I need to do is be able to get out there and try to communicate with my constituents - the people that I represent."

Who he represents will change over the next year because of the once-a-decade redistricting process. It's led to a more Democratic-friendly map, which could pit Republican incumbents against each other.

The chair of the Illinois Republican Party, Pat Brady, recognizes the tough elections ahead, and has nothing but praise for his party's freshmen congressmen - however different their individual styles.

"Everybody represents their district, but all of them have been consistent on the principles on which the Republican Party is founded," Brady said.

But, I press him, which style is most effective?

"That's up to them to determine," Brady said with a laugh. "It's a dangerous thing a state party chairman to tell someone what their style should be. It's up to them. I mean, they're from different places. Different styles work effectively."

Brady adds that they all won last time, so they must have done something right.