Debt Debate Puts GOP Freshmen in Fix

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The Wall Street Journal
By: Naftali Bendavid
June 29, 2011

RICE LAKE, Wis.--The first person to query Rep. Sean Duffy at a recent town hall meeting wanted to know if he would vote to raise the government's debt limit.

"Next question," Mr. Duffy deadpanned.

The actual answer wasn't much more revealing. Mr. Duffy, a first-term Republican, stated both sides of the argument without committing himself, doing little to satisfy anyone in the divided audience.

Mr. Duffy won a House seat in Wisconsin last year by attacking deficit spending and federal overreach. He is among the candidates who helped put Republicans in control of the House, a development some predicted would lead to a take-no-prisoners approach on federal spending and borrowing--the very matter now on the table in the debt-ceiling vote.

Instead, they find themselves buffeted by an array of political forces more diverse than seemed likely in January. Many are eyeing 2012 with some trepidation. And it isn't just the freshmen; in all, 61 House Republicans represent districts that went for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential vote, and 13 of those districts also backed Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

Mr. Duffy won his seat with tea-party and conservative-blogger backing in a district long represented by a prominent Democrat, David Obey. In his short time in office, Mr. Duffy has supported a House Republican plan to revamp Medicare but resisted a favorite cause of the right, stripping federal funding from National Public Radio. He is emblematic of the tensions that are pulling GOP freshmen in different directions and making it all but impossible to predict where the House Republican majority will end up on the defining issue of the moment, the debt ceiling.

Outside Mr. Duffy's town hall meeting, liberals were picketing. Inside, conservatives were demanding he stay the tea-party course. "This is going to be a hard vote," he says.

The U.S. government has reached its $14.29 trillion borrowing limit, and after Aug. 2 won't be able to pay some of its bills unless Congress grants new borrowing authority. The Obama administration has said defaulting on any federal obligations could trigger another financial crisis and recession.

There isn't yet a debt-ceiling bill to vote on. President Barack Obama and Republican leaders now are taking up negotiations that were begun earlier by a bipartisan group, with the goal of cutting enough from the federal budget to ensure passage of a higher limit. Senate Democratic leaders will head to the White House Wednesday for a meeting with Mr. Obama on the debt issue.

A no vote by Mr. Duffy on whatever deal is reached could help burnish his conservative credentials. A yes vote could ease the pressure from Democrats and independents in his district. He speaks of how the responsibility that a legislator bears rules out simplistic approaches.

Mr. Duffy has conservative instincts but won't provide specifics on what spending cuts or budget-rule changes would get his support, saying only, "When I see something that's good enough, I'll know it."

Republican votes will be needed to raise the debt ceiling because Democrats are a minority in the House, in addition to which some liberal Democrats are expected to vote against a debt-ceiling package because of its spending cuts or failure to eliminate certain tax breaks.

Several dozen House Republican are likely to oppose a higher debt ceiling no matter what deal is reached. That makes all the more important the stance of a group of GOP House members who like Mr. Duffy occupy swing districts, a group that ranges from Chip Cravaack in Minnesota to Bobby Schilling of Illinois to Charlie Bass in New Hampshire.

Most have taken positions similar to Mr. Duffy's: They will vote to raise the ceiling only if significant spending cuts are attached. It's a vague standard, making it hard to know what they'll do.

Mr. Duffy, 39 years old, is a former district attorney and onetime lumberjack-contest champion who in 1997 appeared on MTV's "Real World: Boston,'' a show following seven attractive strangers living in a house. He married another contestant. Detractors often begin their criticisms by first noting that he seems like a nice guy.

Like many GOP freshmen, Mr. Duffy says he ran for Congress because he was fed up with federal spending. The race opened up when Rep. Obey, a powerful Democrat with four decades in Congress, abruptly announced his retirement.

Just 26 days after being sworn in, Mr. Duffy faced an ad from Democrats charging he wanted to push through partisan spending cuts. Soon, the liberal group Americans United for Change put up a billboard over Highway 29 in his northwestern Wisconsin district showing an anxious-looking elderly woman saying, "Please, Congressman Duffy, don't privatize my Medicare."

In mid-March, Mr. Duffy was one of seven Republicans who opposed eliminating federal funding for National Public Radio, bringing him an angry call from Meg Ellefson, a stay-at-home mom who is a tea-party organizer in the district's largest city, Wausau.

"So what if some people in the district like NPR? Did they even vote for you in the first place?" Ms. Ellefson recalls telling the congressman. She was "pretty ticked off," she says.

Mr. Duffy says he told Ms. Ellefson his sparsely populated district is home to small NPR stations that are an important source of news for many residents. He said the stations rely on government funding and he didn't want to cut them off with no time for a transition.

Conservatives weren't placated, and liberals weren't assuaged. "That's not something that makes us think he's liberal; [supporting NPR funding] is something he should just do," says Christine Bremer Muggli, a Wausau lawyer active in Democratic politics.

"He came in with his lumberjack shirts, and he's very cute," she adds. "But people are waiting to see if he's representing their interests, and so far not so good."

Ms. Ellefson talks to Mr. Duffy every week to push in the other direction. "Republicans need to stick to their principles, and if it means being confrontational, then do it, for gosh sakes, or the tea party won't stick with you," she says.

Mr. Duffy, whose desk sports a wind-up toy of two loggers sawing a tree, appears bemused by the cross-pressures. "People are aggressively coming forward," he said. "Taking things out of context--that's the new normal."

At a town hall meeting March 29, Mr. Duffy stumbled into a classic political gaffe. A constituent told him work had dried up and asked about his congressional salary. Mr. Duffy cited his debt load and having gone seven months with no paycheck and six children while campaigning, and said he was struggling too.

"But $174,000, that's three times what I make," the man responded.

Mr. Duffy immediately realized he had sounded insensitive and out of touch. "I knew it was a horrible answer," he said in a later interview.

"Poor Hollywood Sean Duffy," taunted state Democratic chairman Mike Tate, using the party's favorite epithet for the former TV figure. "He only makes four times the median family income in Wisconsin."

Mr. Duffy wrote an apologetic letter to the Wausau Daily Herald: "I said something foolish and it's not much more complicated than that." In an interview, he added: "It was a good lesson on being careful."

A bigger challenge came when fellow Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman and a Duffy mentor, unveiled a plan to eventually change Medicare into a system in which seniors buy private insurance with government help.

If Mr. Duffy supported Rep. Ryan's budget plan, of which the Medicare change was a part, he could re-establish conservative credentials he had damaged by backing a 2011 spending bill that cut less than Republicans initially wanted. But he would open himself to Democratic attacks if he supported an overhaul of a popular entitlement program.

Mr. Duffy decided to back the Ryan plan, but with little enthusiasm. "Could this be the end-all, be-all proposal? Maybe, maybe not," Mr. Duffy says. "Other folks may have good proposals."

When Mr. Duffy joined in a vote for the Ryan budget on April 15, he touched off a blizzard of attacks. A Democratic radio ad said, "Tell Duffy to keep his hands off our Medicare." Americans United for Change ran TV spots with an elderly woman saying, "Sean Duffy looks like a nice young man. But on April 15th he voted to end Medicare and its guaranteed health-care benefits."

On the other side, the conservative 60 Plus Association ran ads thanking him for supporting the Ryan budget. The frenzy was reminiscent of a heated campaign season, but the next election was 19 months away.

In mid-April, when Mr. Duffy held a town hall meeting in the scenic town of Shell Lake, Democratic voters argued with him over the Medicare changes until finally Mr. Duffy snapped back: "Let me tell you what--when you have your town hall, you can stand up and give your presentation."

Undeterred, he is holding dozens of town hall meetings, convinced voters will respect the debate even if they don't agree with him.

But Democrats smell blood, and one, former State Sen. Pat Kreitlow, has already announced he will challenge Mr. Duffy in 2012. "He pays lip service to moderation, but in a way that he can't back up," Mr. Kreitlow says.

Mr. Duffy calls Mr. Kreitlow too liberal for the district but allows that "I'm going to get a good challenge, I know that."

In late April, a conservative radio host who broadcasts in the district asked whether the debt limit had to be raised and wondered why the U.S. couldn't just go bankrupt. "You hear about the big corporations, or even businesses, that used to file for bankruptcy," said the talk-show host, Pat Snyder of station WSAU. "They reorganize, they come back and they can get strong again. Why couldn't the United States do something like that?" Then he added, "I guess that wouldn't work."

Mr. Duffy says he is exasperated by such talk. "We have a lot of conservative talk radio in my district, and people trust these guys," he said. "But it's easy to say these things if you don't have responsibility."

As a debt-ceiling vote grows closer, his district is as divided as ever. At a recent coffee with constituents at Cozy Corner Café in the farming community of Owen, Tim Swiggum, 46, a former mayor, said legislators need to raise the ceiling because it would be irresponsible for the U.S. to default. But retired logger Bill Elmhorst, 71, said it would be a mistake for Mr. Duffy to vote for a higher limit, and "we'll hold his feet to the fire. He's not going to just get a pass."

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