GOP House freshmen draw mixed response at home

By John Kekis

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 25 2011 6:00 p.m. MST

In this Feb. 21, 2011 photo, Russ Jennings, left, poses a question to Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle of New York during a town hall meeting in Liverpool, N.Y. Buerkle, like dozens of other freshman members, was sent to Congress on a promise to slash government spending. Now, she and some of her colleagues who visited constituents this week in their home districts are facing reactions ranging from support to mild worry over just the cuts they promised they’d make.

Heather Ainsworth, Associated Press

SALINA, N.Y. — Newly elected Republican Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, like dozens of other freshman members, was sent to Congress on a promise to slash government spending. And slash it she did, voting last weekend to cut $61 billion from the current federal budget and to repeal President Barack Obama's health care reform plan.

Now, Buerkle and some of her colleagues who visited constituents this week in their home districts are facing reactions ranging from support to mild worry over just the cuts they promised they'd make. Even Buerkle acknowledges some of the cuts she supported were "gut-wrenching."

"It seems as though recent votes taken would unduly give pain to the poor," said Janet Muir, a self-described fiscal conservative and one of 300 people who attended a town hall meeting Buerkle hosted here Tuesday. Muir said lawmakers should look to the military and other areas to trim spending.

"You've cut domestic spending in ways that are going to hurt taxpayers," Muir said. "I would like to see this burden shared with the wealthy."

Buerkle, who defeated first-term Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei by less than 600 votes in a district that favored Obama in 2008, is one of 87 House GOP freshmen — six from New York alone — swept into office by voters demanding greater fiscal discipline in Washington. But at town halls and other constituent meetings during this week's Congressional recess, GOP lawmakers — particularly from swing districts like Buerkle's — were grilled for making good on that promise.

But others, like Florida Rep. Allen West, won standing ovations from huge crowds. Others, like Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold and Florida Rep. Vern Buchanan, drew parents pushing baby strollers protesting potential cuts to Head Start, the federal school readiness program for young children.

The town hall meetings this week bore little resemblance to those that took place in the summer of 2009, when voters wary of Obama's health care proposal shouted down members of Congress at raucous televised gatherings. And while attendees at many of this week's meetings were largely in favor of lawmakers' efforts to cut spending, there were plenty of specifics that gave them pause.

West, a tea party favorite who ousted two-term Democratic Rep. Ron Klein to become one of seven Republican freshmen from Florida, saw an otherwise enthusiastic crowd fall silent at a town meeting this week when he spoke of potential cuts to popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

At an otherwise supportive town hall meeting Thursday, Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Meehan, elected to succeed Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak in a swing district outside Philadelphia, was challenged on his vote to repeal the Obama health care plan.

Meehan defended his vote, saying the last Congress "did not do at the outset what they should have done, which is to first and foremost control costs." He acknowledged there were few easy ways to bring the budget into balance but insisted he and other Republicans had been elected to do so.

"I'm getting calls into my office, 'How could you cut A, B or C.' But I think we were sent to try to use ... common sense choices," Meehan said.

Meehan and others used the meetings to address the looming threat of a potential government shutdown, which could happen in March if lawmakers can't compromise on a spending plan.

"Nobody, especially on our side of the aisle, wants to shut down the government," Meehan told his crowd. "But we also believe that America spoke clearly and they were looking for there to be real efforts to not be afraid to take on these vested programs."

Republican Rep. Daniel Webster, who hosted four town meetings in his Florida district, said he hadn't heard much enthusiasm for the government to close.

"There really wasn't a huge contingency saying 'Let's go shut it down.' What they want to see is spending cuts, and that's what we are trying to provide," Webster told The Associated Press.

Democratic and liberal leaning interest groups are taking advantage of voter concerns over the GOP-supported budget cuts to help mobilize some of the protests. The liberal online group MoveOn.org organized "speak outs" at more than 100 congressional offices Thursday, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting 50 House Republicans, mostly in swing districts, with robocalls and e-mails.

Buerkle — one of the DCCC's top targets for defeat in 2012 — told her town meeting she knew her budget votes would put her at odds with many constituents.

"I know I didn't win by a vast majority," she said. "I know that I have a lot of work to do to prove myself to you."

Fouhy reported from New York. Associated Press writers Erin Vanderberg in West Chester, Pa., and Kyle Hightower in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.

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