- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

As the final vote on raising the government’s borrowing limit approached Tuesday, Republican after Republican took to the Senate floor to attack the bipartisan deal. The one unifying theme: Most were freshman, newly elected with the support of the tea party movement, and showed no qualms about bucking their own party’s leaders who wrote the deal.

Gone are the days when new senators are seen but not heard.

As the Senate signaled this week, freshman Republicans are not only being heard — they are carrying the Republican tea party rebellion straight into the heart of the world’s most exclusive club, where they have provided reinforcements to the small group of conservatives that for years fought losing battles on spending cuts.

“Can you imagine a family back in Kansas congratulating themselves for changing the topic without ever changing their spending patterns?” said Sen. Jerry Moran, a newly elected Kansas Republican. “Kansas families, when they’re in trouble for spending too much money, they cut the budget today, and we are not doing that.”

Powered by Mr. Moran and eight of his fellow freshmen, 19 Republicans, or 40 percent of the conference, voted against the deal their party’s leaders had struck. By contrast, only about a quarter of House Republicans balked at the legislation — a marked shift from the usual pattern, when House Republicans led the way in rebellion.

Despite their efforts, the bill ended up passing by a 74-26 tally in the Senate and a 269-161 vote in the House.

But even as he took a victory lap, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who negotiated the final deal, used his floor speech to give credit to the new members for forcing the debate in the first place.

“The American people sent a wave of new lawmakers to Congress in last November’s election with a very clear mandate: to put our nation’s fiscal house in order,” he said. “Those of us who’d been fighting the big-government policies of Democratic majorities in Congress welcomed them into our ranks. Together, we’ve held the line.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid recognized the influence of the new lawmakers, but as a worrisome force.

“I welcome them all, but a result of the tea party direction of this Congress, the last few months has been very, very disconcerting and very unfair to the American people,” the Nevada Democrat said.

In the past, the Senate had been the killing ground for ideas both Republican and Democrat, as the chamber’s collegiality and minority-rights rules acted as a brake.

That was true in 1995, when the Senate slowed many of the reforms of House Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America.”

But this year, Senate Republican freshmen seem determined to be at the leading edge, particularly when it comes to matters of spending and deficits.

To be sure, some conservative Republicans were always willing to hold up business over spending, but the influx of freshman Republicans who share those sentiments has dramatically strengthened the GOP hand.

“It’s helped the more senior members rediscover their Republican roots,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who served in the House before winning election to the Senate in 2004.

The freshmen include several members who previously held House seats but also feature first-time officeholders. One thing that unifies them is the message they say they heard from voters back home: Get the government’s finances in order.

Mr. DeMint, who helped many of those freshmen get elected last year, said they are more accountable to the voters who sent them to Washington than to the leaders who once held great power over the chamber. In particular, the end of earmarks has denied leaders one tool they used to keep lawmakers in line.

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican and one of those freshmen, said it was tough for him to compare before and after because he is new, but he said his stance was clear all along: no debt increase until Congress took steps to bind its own hands going forward by sending to the states for ratification a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

The debt vote itself provided an interesting contrast in strategy.

Most Democrats opposed the deal from the left, arguing it cut too deeply. GOP opponents, meanwhile, said it didn’t stop the sea of red ink.

Some political observers had predicted this week's House and Senate votes could turn out to be as toxic as the 2008 financial bailout vote, but judging by the substantial support in both chambers, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

In fact, vulnerable lawmakers did not shy away from the vote.

Of the more than five dozen potentially in-play House Republicans listed by political analyst Charlie Cook, just eight voted against the higher debt ceiling.

In the Senate, meanwhile, the class of senators up for election next year was the most supportive. Just six lawmakers out of the 33 seats up for election next year voted against the legislation: two Republicans, three Democrats and one independent. Of the 33 seats up in 2014, four Republicans and three Democrats voted “No.”

But of the lawmakers just elected for full terms last year, 13 voted against the debt increase, all were Republicans, and eight of them were freshmen. The ninth freshman Republican opponent was Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, who was appointed to fill the seat of former Sen. John Ensign. Mr. Heller faces his first Senate re-election bid next year.