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

  • 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

    Joe Walsh didn't go to Washington to make friends. "I came here ready to go to war," says Walsh, a Republican freshman from Chicago's suburbs. "The political powers will always try to get you to compromise your beliefs for the good of the team," he says, sitting in his congressional office near a quilt inscribed with the Constitution's preamble and the leather sofa that doubles as his bed. "The people didn't send me here to compromise."

    Humility was once a hallmark of House newcomers, who were greeted with backwater committee assignments and indifference from their elders. Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill called newbies "bed wetters"; Sam Rayburn advised his freshmen that the way to "get along" was to "go along." But that adage assumed the rookies wanted to rise to power in the chamber. At least some of the 87-member House Republican freshman class of 2010 seem more interested in burning it down.

    But while revolutionary rhetoric propelled many of the freshmen to Washington, some believe their success will depend on making peace. "We need to get back to where we can talk about compromise," says Adam Kinzinger, an Air National Guard pilot who represents a district southwest of Chicago. "It's a word that people have kind of demonized." For Republican newcomers, the cost-cutting fervor of the party's conservative base comes with risks, not least that voters who say they're ready for austerity will bristle when asked to relinquish programs and subsidies to which they've grown accustomed.

    Like Walsh, Kinzinger unseated a Democrat in a district President Obama won in 2008. They're both eager to rein in spending and roll back the reach of government. But they have very different philosophies about how to take on the Democratic Senate and the Obama White House in the months to come.

    For his part, Walsh relishes the challenge. "This will be a tension throughout the next two years among Republicans. I think it's healthy. This city ain't never seen something like this freshman class."

    A Delicate Balance
    On a chilly February afternoon, Kinzinger is standing in the Bloomington, Ill., headquarters of State Farm Insurance, holding a town hall with employees and executives in a dreary auditorium with industrial lighting and gray-carpeted walls. Kinzinger is 33 and looks younger. He begins by taking his audience on a somber tour of the nation's balance sheet: the $14 trillion national debt, the bloated deficit, 9% unemployment, a busted entitlement system. It's an appeal to the head more than the heart, a pitch that preps his audience for the pain he'll be delivering. "Cutting spending is not a decision I want to make," he says. "But we are going to ask you to make sacrifices."

    Sacrifice is never an easy sell in politics, and while the reception is mostly positive when Kinzinger opens the floor for questions, the anxiety spills out. Some people are concerned that the new Republican majority is cutting too much too fast. Referring to Kinzinger's talk of rooting out Medicare fraud, one man asks whether federal budget cuts will undermine the cause. Kinzinger says employees will have to "be more effective," prompting a derisive laugh from his interrogator. Others demand to know why Kinzinger hasn't cut more; one challenges him to defend his recent vote to continue production of an expensive fighter-jet engine that the House successfully snipped. Another asks whether Kinzinger supports ending federal farm subsidies — a loaded question in a rural district that relies on agricultural largesse. Kinzinger dodges that one. Afterward, the questioner says he opposes farm subsidies but knows why the Congressman ducked the issue. "For this district, he said what he had to say."

    Not that Kinzinger is a shrinking violet. As a student at Illinois State University, he ousted an incumbent Democrat on the county board. In the Air Force, he flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and also risked his life on a Milwaukee street in 2006 when he disarmed a man trying to stab a young woman to death.

    Yet while Kinzinger rode to Congress on the Tea Party wave, his politics are nuanced. He is a solid conservative on taxes, defense and social issues. But as the son of a teacher, he also believes Washington has a role to play in education. He supported Congress's December extension of unemployment benefits. Since his January swearing-in, he has backed several programs House conservatives wanted to chop, including Amtrak subsidies and home-heating assistance for the poor. The conservative political group Heritage Action for America cites him as one of the six Republican freshmen least committed to cutting spending. Before he had cast a vote, a Tea Party organization released his personal contact information and urged members to warn him that they "won't tolerate politics as usual." And even as he watches his right flank, Kinzinger must be wary of his left one. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently began conducting automated phone calls in his district, criticizing Kinzinger's vote to cut housing aid for homeless veterans. "Nobody's going to be happy," Kinzinger says. "I think it's one of the hardest times in the country's history to be a Congressman."

    1. Previous Page
    2. 1
    3. 2