'Dogged' GOP Freshmen A Factor In Debt Debate

Arizona Rep. David Schweikert has been in Washington for just six months. He upset an incumbent in 2010 on the strength of strong Tea Party backing. We check in with Schweikert as he prepared to cast a vote on the debt ceiling.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Alright. Well, as Steve just said, so far Republican leaders in the House have not been able to win over enough of their fellow Republicans to get a vote through in that chamber. One skeptical lawmaker in the House is David Schweikert of Arizona. He's one of the newly-elected freshmen.

NPR's Don Gonyea spent a day with him in January, his first day in Congress, and he went back to visit yesterday.

DON GONYEA: As Congressman Schweikert worked his way through a busy schedule that started well before breakfast, even his press secretary had a hard time keeping tabs on him.

Ms. RACHEL SEMMEL (Congressional Press Secretary) Okay, he's still, he got pulled into some negotiations, is all I've heard from him, so we're waiting outside of the conference room.

GONYEA: Minutes later, Schweikert is walking down one of the tunnels beneath the Capitol complex. The congressman started the day a man needing to be convinced. He said the Boehner plan needed to do more to address debt long-term. Here he is right after a 9 a.m. closed meeting of House Republicans.

Representative DAVID SCHWEIKERT (Republican, Arizona): My impression is we're very close to a deal here in the House. There's many of us who are holding out to see if we can move the deal, I believe, further in fiscal conservatism.

GONYEA: At this point, Schweikert, who is not a member of the Congressional Tea Party caucus but who has Tea Party support, says he's still leaning toward voting no. He talks as we walk. He says he expects Moody's and Standard and Poor's to downgrade the nation's bond rating, even if the debt ceiling is raised next week.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: It's not about raising the debt ceiling. It is about the debt.

GONYEA: Back in his office, Schweikert does a phone interview with a TV station in Phoenix. Then it's a short walk in the late-morning humidity to the Capitol Hill Club, where he meets with a group he was a member of more than three decades ago, the Teenage Republicans. Schweikert's brief talk was part civics lesson.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: How many of you have had a government class so far? Would you guess that reality's a little different than what you get in a book?

GONYEA: And yes, there was talk of the debt. On the way out, another call on his cell phone - more lobbying for his vote.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: That was leader Cantor. I am one of the folks that's very concerned that this legislation isn't going to go far enough to save us from the credit rating agencies. So I am holding out to do my very best to see, can we get that next bit of incremental movement.

GONYEA: So as we stand here at 11:58 a.m. ...

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: I still lean no.

GONYEA: Next up, a cable TV appearance.

Unidentified Woman: How are you?

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: Hi there.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi. Want a little makeup? A little powder?

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: Can you make me taller?

Unidentified Woman #2: Sure. OK.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: If you can take care of that...

Unidentified Woman: Not a problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: It's the "Power Lunch" program on CNBC.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Power Lunch")

Mr. TYLER MATHISEN (Co-Host, "Power Lunch"): Congressman Schweikert, you're a freshman member here, and the freshmen on the Republican have been instrumental in pushing the debate the way it is, using the debt ceiling as a lever, a bludgeon - you choose your metaphor here.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: Let's stick with lever.

GONYEA: And finally mid-afternoon, into the House chamber for debate. During a break, Schweikert steps out into the hallway: the push for him to vote yes has intensified.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: Getting whipped a bit on the floor. So different members who you have relationships with, they're coming and talking to you about the pros and the cons.

GONYEA: Schweikert says he hasn't closed the door but he is still leaning no. The buzzer summons him back into the chamber for more debate and for an expected vote - a vote that eight hours later will be called off. Earlier in the afternoon, Schweikert talked about a new member of the Congress and dealing with an issue like this.

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: Look, I'm down the food chain. I'm still a freshman, and on occasion I get reminded of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: But you can be really, really dogged and actually have some impact, and that's what I try to do.

GONYEA: And on this issue...

Rep. SCHWEIKERT: I'm being dogged.

GONYEA: And given last night's breakdown in the House, that doggedness on the part of Schweikert and other members of the GOP freshman class continues to complicate chances for a resolution before next week's deadline.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And in the last 20 minutes, Don reached out again to Congressman's Schweikert's staff, asking if he's changed his position at all this morning. The word from the staff is the congressman is still leaning no. He's waiting to see how the House leaders change the bill.

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