GOP Rep. Putnam: Voters Fed Up With Partisanship

Florida Representative Adam Putnam was the youngest member of Congress when he arrived in Washington in 2000. He was 26 years old. Putnam is chairman of the Republican conference in the House, and he's worried about the party's chances in statewide elections. Putnam says even in the South, Republicans could be in trouble.

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Now, Republicans departed that convention in better shape than they had reason to hope. The presidential race is close, according to the polls, even in this year when Republicans are less popular than in the past. Still, we should mention the party is looking at the possibility of serious losses in Congress. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talked about why that's happening with a young Florida congressman.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Adam Putnam was elected to Congress in 2000. Now he's chairman of the Republican conference in the House, two steps away from being his party leader and worried about its prospects. Putnam thinks that even in the South Republicans could be in trouble.

Representative ADAM PUTNAM (Republican, Florida): There's a lot of action in the South this cycle. It's a very anti-incumbent mood.

WERTHEIMER: We met Adam Putnam in the Florida delegation on the convention floor, a conversation interrupted a couple of times by Miss Minnesota rehearsing the national anthem.

(Soundbite of "The Star-Spangled Banner")

Miss ANGIE MCDERMOTT (Miss Minnesota 2008): (Singing) Oh, say can you see by the...

WERTHEIMER: The Republicans lost the House in the last election and three more Republican seats were lost earlier this year in special elections. Putnam thinks the voters are not over their unhappiness with Republicans.

Rep. PUTNAM: 2006 did not scratch America's itch. Approval ratings have continued to plummet, even with new leadership in Congress. So it's clear that the voters were looking for more than just a rearranging of the chairmanships, but really a wholesale change. And they don't feel like they've gotten it.

WERTHEIMER: What's the problem? People want things, according to Putnam, that the Congress has not, and apparently cannot, deliver.

Rep. PUTNAM: The American people want us to work together. Partisanship's great in Denver. It's great in Minneapolis. But at the end of the day they want an energy bill. They want an immigration bill. They want us to fix social security and Medicare. They want more Americans to have access to health insurance. There's a lot of bipartisan agreement that inertia, leadership, politics, and other narrow factors prevent from occurring.

WERTHEIMER: That would include the Senate, with its very narrow Democratic majority, and of course, the incumbent Republican president. Notably, Putnam's list of subjects for legislation is remarkably like the wish list Democrats talk about. He says that if the Republicans in Congress get a second chance, there could be compromises - presumably with a different and younger leader taking over.

Rep. PUTNAM: What makes everybody pull their hair out and cuss the TV whenever there's a member of Congress on is that, he's just not getting anything done. And they really want to see us break the logjam and start moving some product.

WERTHEIMER: Working together would require a change of culture, but Putnam says both parties continue to practice partisanship. He says the Congress under Republicans offered the people arrogance, scandal and corruption, and it continues to ignore the message voters sent when they kicked so many incumbents out of office in 2006.

Rep. PUTNAM: To think that we can solve that with the support and faith of the American people, when 89 percent of them believe that we're crooked, is impossible. So job one has to be to clean up the Congress to the extent that you rebuild the faith and the trust.

WERTHEIMER: Adam Putnam points out that Democrats went down this same path, incurring voter's wrath and bringing about a Republican resurgence under Newt Gingrich. Possibly Putnam sees himself as the next Gingrich. But what he says is that if Congress were to flip again maybe members would finally get the joke and try to produce some answers.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, St. Paul.

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