Conflict vs. Compromise: A Tale of Two Freshmen in Congress

Some consider compromise a dirty word; others think it's the only way they'll survive

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Photographs by Andrew Cutraro for TIME

Left: 'I came here ready to go to war. The people didn't send me here to compromise.' —Representative Joe Walsh; Right: 'We need to get back to where we can talk about compromise.' —Representative Adam Kinzinger

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That may help to explain why Kinzinger is selling comity at a moment when the market for confrontation runs hot, and why he's eager to avoid the budget brinkmanship that could lead to a repeat of the shutdowns of 1995 and '96. "We're determined to keep the government open," he says. "I hope that in the long run we can find areas of common ground."

Slashing and Burning
For Joe Walsh, the calculation is simpler. "Getting re-elected in two years is not a priority," he says. Walsh, 49, has vowed to serve a maximum of three terms, and he was never supposed to be in Washington in the first place. An upbeat venture capitalist, Walsh was considered such a long shot to win his district that the national party barely bothered investing money in his campaign. He ran an unpolished race marred by reports that his condo had fallen into foreclosure. But Walsh channeled the national mood — "I've had enough!" his website proclaimed — and eked out a victory by 290 votes.

Walsh reveres the framers, drops phrases like "Madison and the boys" and envisions himself as a "radically different" kind of Representative. "People come here because it's comfortable, and you're patted on the butt all the time and you feel like a king," he says. As a gesture of abstemiousness, he has declined the cushy health benefits granted to members of Congress, and he is among more than a dozen GOP freshmen who sleep in their offices. Many freshmen frame their zeal for cost cutting as an approach guided by morality, not partisanship. "We should be the conscience of the conference," says Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, a former Christian-summer-camp director. "We are not the anti-Obama class or the Tea Party class we're described as," says Representative Austin Scott of Georgia, whose peers elected him freshman-class president. "What we are is committed to the next generation."

From the beginning, many of the House's conservative newcomers were wary of leaders like Speaker John Boehner, whom they saw as part of Washington's culture of deal cutting. And while they praise Boehner's hands-off style, freshmen suspicious that party leaders "might have been trying to co-opt us," as one puts it, recently led the class to recommit to a weekly meeting that had begun falling victim to hectic schedules.

When Republican House leaders presented a budget plan that would have cut $32 billion in seven months — a deep whack, but less than the GOP had pledged — it spurred rumblings of a freshman revolt. So Boehner bowed to their demands and boosted the figure to $61 billion. Democrats say that figure requires unacceptable cuts in vital programs and have vowed to reject it, but the skirmish cemented the group's clout. "If we stick together on everything," Walsh says, "our leadership is screwed."

With the government set to run out of money on March 4, House Republicans and Senate Democrats began to look for a short-term solution. Boehner's refusal to offer a temporary extension of current spending levels was backed by the freshmen, who insisted they would not accept any measure without a down payment on the deeper cuts to come. "I will say no and I will shut down government," Walsh vowed to a group of his constituents in late February. Democrats caved, but the next battle already looms as the rebels make noises about voting down an increase in the federal debt limit this spring, even if it means the U.S. defaults on obligations to its creditors. Walsh estimates 20 to 25 freshmen believe, as he does, that the nation's fiscal woes are "so serious that this country needs to crash."

For all their bluster about changing Washington, in some ways these freshmen are old news. In 1994, the GOP snatched back the House after 40 years in the minority, led by 73 rookies with a comparable set of hopes and hang-ups. "It's eerie how many similarities there are," says Linda Killian, whose book The Freshmen follows the '94 class through the 104th Congress. That group misinterpreted the scope of its mandate. Led by Newt Gingrich, they shut down the government over a budget impasse. But voters overwhelmingly sided with Bill Clinton when they went to the polls. Even the most conservative of the '94 group, Killian recalls, "only stayed true believers for about a year. Then the shutdown happened, and the realities hit."

Perhaps that's why some in the class of 2010, mindful of their predecessors' missteps, are ready to write a different ending. "None of us want to see the government shut down," Kinzinger says. "It's not good for us, and it's not good for the American people."

And yet for some compromise remains a dirty word. "I'm ready to make those tough votes," Walsh says. "I'm pretty certain the American people are with us."

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