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GOP Leaders Coaching Freshmen

Freshman GOP lawmakers are returning home for the recess with a messaging plan in lock step with their leadership, despite failing to win the deep spending cuts that they have sought since their first days in Washington, D.C. 

“We came here to change the culture of Washington, and in our first 100 days I believe we accomplished that,” said first-term Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.), mimicking the message that GOP leaders were also touting last week. “We’re arguing over how deep the cuts need to be, and that didn’t happen last year. Now we’re going to do the big things: the budget and the debt limit.” 

Members back at home this week will whip out their dog-eared copies of the “Pledge to America,” the GOP’s definitive document of goals unveiled late last year, and remind constituents that one by one they are scratching items off the list. According to a separate messaging document obtained by Roll Call, all Members of the GOP Conference are advised to tout cuts in government spending, as well as their votes to end housing programs enacted under the politically toxic Troubled Asset Relief Program. They are also asked to talk about the passage of Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget outline for 2012. 

Several freshman lawmakers interviewed before the recess were already sounding those themes and pledged to talk up the Wisconsin Republican’s budget back home despite its controversial provisions on Medicare and Medicaid. As for government spending, while conservatives have complained the continuing resolution did not cut the full $61 billion sought by the GOP’s right flank, Members are prepared to remind constituents that they are making progress in a continued effort to restrain Washington spending.  

Rep. Bill Huizenga, who bucked party leadership and voted against the six-month CR because it did not make deep enough cuts, said he’s ready to face constituents back home. 

“It’s a conservative district, but it’s a pragmatic and reasonable district that understands you’re not going to get everything you want, but they’re ready to move on too,” the Michigan Republican said. “They’re ready to say, ‘OK, let’s stop talking about billions and start talking about trillions. Let’s start having that conversation.’” 

Huizenga also admitted it will be “tough” to defend his vote for the budget.

“There’s going to be some stuff in there that’s used against people in the next election,” he said. “We’ve got to stop budgeting for the next election and start budgeting for the next generation.”

Republican leaders have carefully coached their class of 87 new Members this year, hosting listening sessions on the budget and offering up educational courses on media and constituent services. The freshmen have been trying to do their part: Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said he has been fielding calls on the budget since January, while Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he has been hosting virtual town halls for people back home.

And leadership is attempting to keep rank-and-file Members on message.

“The Path to Prosperity streamlines government agencies, brings non-security discretionary spending to below 2008 levels, targets wasteful and duplicative federal programs, and repeals the government takeover of health care,” the recess document provided to Members states. 

Talking points in the recess document, given to Members’ offices last week, seek to draw a distinction between the GOP’s budget plan and President Barack Obama’s. 

“The Path to Prosperity cuts $6.2 trillion in government spending over the next decade compared to the President’s budget,” the Republican talking points state. “We place the nation on a fiscally sustainable path by cutting wasteful Washington spending so employers have the confidence to create jobs.”

Rep. Michael Grimm, who earlier this year criticized tea party advocates for calling on Members not to pass any short-term CRs, voted in favor of the six-month CR last week. The New York Republican told Roll Call that his conservative voters would understand that “we don’t control the Senate and the presidency; if we did, it should be the number we wanted it to be.” 

Besides, Grimm said, Democrats would help him make his case back in his Staten Island-based district. 

“The president has not been forthright, so I’m not going to in any way be concerned when someone is not willing to tell the truth and won’t put up real numbers to say how they are going to control our numbers for the next 10 or 20 years,” he said. 

GOP leaders also sought to hold their Conference together as Members took back-to-back votes on the CR and budget. A total of 59 Republicans voted against the CR, including 28 freshmen, but the party regrouped and voted mostly for Ryan’s budget. While some votes splintered off for the CR and the upcoming debt limit debate promises to be difficult for many vulnerable freshmen to navigate, one GOP strategist explained that all Republicans will nevertheless be unified back home over the next two weeks. 

“The House GOP message is essentially the same even if you’re a rank-and-file rabble-rouser,” the strategist said. “There may be some disagreement over the degree of cuts, but the overarching goal remains the same, especially with the debt limit vote on the horizon.”

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