For months, the Washington press corps has referred to the House Republican freshman class as a monolithic entity. Depending on whom you ask, all 87 newbies are either heroes or extremists, holding Republican Speaker John Boehner's feet to the fire over conservative causes.
They forced their leadership to pursue to $61 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget, far more than the $34 billion originally proposed. Their perceived intransigence helped House Speaker John Boehner milk $10 billion more in cuts than the Democrats were prepared to give. And they have given Boehner the upper hand at the outset of negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and slash the deficit.
But the freshmen's ability to lock arms and present a united front belies the diversity of the group. TIME, along with CNN's Brianna Keilar, decided to take an hour to really get to know a few of them. We chose one from each corner of the country: Ann Marie Buerkle from New York, Georgia's Tom Graves, Paul Gosar of Arizona and Raul Labrador from western Idaho.
At one point or another, all of them have been portrayed as loose cannons. But the four politicians who met TIME Tuesday night chose their words as carefully as any veteran lawmaker. The Tea Party "was a grassroots movement," says Gosar, a dentist and first time politician who won on the strength of the Tea Party vote. "And I don't think anybody in Washington, D.C. should be speaking on behalf of the Tea Party." Yet each expressed appreciation for Speaker Boehner, repeatedly praising the fact that "he listens."
In the following interview, you'll find a group of freshmen that are more pragmatic than Washington realizes. They are in fierce opposition to tax hikes and say they will refuse to raise the debt ceiling without a balanced budget amendment or additional cuts. But they are open to cutting deals in some areas. Not too long ago, compromise was a dirty word among new Republican members of Congress. In Tea Party groups outside the Beltway, it still is. So, has the establishment changed the freshmen or vice versa?
Lightly edited excerpts from of our interview, which will air Wednesday on CNN's Situation Room, follow:
On the 2011 budget vote expected on Thursday:
Graves is a "no" and Labrador said he is leaning the same way.
TIME: In splitting like this, aren't you sort of the underlining the Democratic argument that the Tea party is splitting the Republican Party?
LABRADOR: Not at all. When we started the debate, the initial offer was $31 billion in cuts. Some of us spoke up and we said that we needed to be more needed it to be more. So we actually got it to $61 billion in cuts. And now we're getting $38 $39 billion dollars in cuts. We're going to vote against these things, but I think we would have had much less than the $38 or $39 billion right now. So I think we want to bring more cuts to the table. I think it would have been closer to $12 or $15 [billion] if we would have started where the plan initially started.