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Tea Party Firebrand Backs Hard Choices At Town Hall

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Tea Party Firebrand Backs Hard Choices At Town Hall


Tea Party Firebrand Backs Hard Choices At Town Hall

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Members of the House are back in their home districts for the first time since this session of Congress began. For freshmen, it's their first chance to report back and hear from constituents. Congressman Allen West is one of those freshmen. He's a Tea Party favorite from Florida.

NPR's Greg Allen went last night to his first town meeting, held in Deerfield Beach.

GREG ALLEN: It was billed as a town meeting but for the many Allen West supporters who attended, it had the feel of a victory rally.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ALLEN: It was held at the South Florida Bible College. More than 300 people gave West a standing ovation when he arrived.

West began by holding up something that he told the audience was pretty special.

Representative ALLEN WEST (Republican, Florida): This is the electronic voting card that you see us using up there on Capitol Hill. And now, if you want, afterwards come by and see this because this does not belong to me, even though it does have my picture. It belongs to each and every one of you, the constituents of Congressional District 22.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ALLEN: In many ways, West is unconventional. He's an African-American Republican representing a mostly white, affluent district. He became the first Republican in 14 years to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

Strong Tea Party support was a major factor in his victory in November. West defeated two-term Democrat Ron Klein in a swing district that stretches from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach. During the campaign, his rhetoric was often heated. Last night, he took a mostly more measured tone.

For reporters and others anticipating a confrontation in Congress between the GOP leadership and Tea Party proponents, West had this to say.

Rep. WEST: We got all the media here and everything. Let me tell you guys something: Stop with this media manipulation of this group of Americans called the Tea Party.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ALLEN: West talked proudly of the first bills passed by the House, including the repeal of the new health care law. He reiterated a promise to vote against raising the debt limit, unless the bill includes measures to control the growth of government; a balanced budget amendment and a cap on federal spending.

West said he was there mostly to talk to his constituents about the nation's fiscal picture and the need to make hard budget decisions. Using charts and graphs, he told this mostly over-age-50 crowd there would have to be significant cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Rep. WEST: The explosive growth of entitlement spending, we've got to get it off of auto-pilot. We really do. We've got to make some hard looks at that. There are many different things that we can do...

ALLEN: West said he endorsed many of the ideas circulated by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, such as raising the retirement age and changing Medicare's fee-for-service structure. It was a sober discussion with no applause lines and which the audience met mostly with silence.

Rep. WEST: We're not going to do anything that's going to put the American people or our seniors, or anyone's life at jeopardy. And I don't want to hear all of this fear-mongering and the use of propaganda against what you all know that we must do. It is time that we start to talk to the American people as adults, and stop talking to them like children.

ALLEN: There were some Democrats at last night's town meeting, including Donald Mello of Deerfield Beach. Mello voiced a political reality - that West and anyone looking to cut Social Security and Medicare would not find them easy targets.

Mr. DONALD MELLO: Well, I don't think so because senior citizens are probably the largest voting bloc that actually votes in this country. So I think if you are going to do that, you are going to put your office in jeopardy.

ALLEN: At last night's town meeting, West referred several times to a well-thumbed copy of President Obama's State of the Union speech, in which West had made copious notes. The audience seemed skeptical, but West said he saw in the speech places where he could work with the White House.

Rep. WEST: That's the rhetoric. We'll see what happens with the reality. But I just want to continue to bring up, he talked about illegal immigration, he talked about the individual tax code. So there is an opening for us to work, as he said, in a bipartisan fashion to get these things done.

ALLEN: West said he thought the 87 new freshmen Republicans in the House would stay true to their ideals. As for congressional veterans, West said he had a message: Either you go bold, or you go home.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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