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U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland emblematic of rebellious freshmen class

“The people of Florida’s 2nd Congressional District said, ‘Steve go up there and fight to change the culture in Washington,’ ”  says Southerland. “I’ve taken their instructions very seriously.”

New York Times

“The people of Florida’s 2nd Congressional District said, ‘Steve go up there and fight to change the culture in Washington,’ ”  says Southerland. “I’ve taken their instructions very seriously.”

WASHINGTON — Congress was roiling over budget cuts and Republicans huddled privately in the Capitol basement, a caucus divided as a government shutdown grew perilously close.

Rising to his feet was a brawny, bald man with a big voice. He looked straight at House Speaker John Boehner and demanded deeper cuts.

"I will hold you accountable to the promises that you make to the American people," Rep. Steve Southerland said, an audacious move from a guy who has been on the job four months.

Southerland, a funeral home owner from Panama City, is emblematic of the sprawling, determined and sometimes rebellious class of freshmen Republicans that is driving the national debate over spending.

Not long before midnight Friday, Boehner signed off on a deal to slash $38.5 billion from the current budget. The shutdown was avoided.

But when the deal comes up for passage, likely Thursday, Southerland will vote no. "It just didn't go far enough," he said in an interview.

"The people of Florida's 2nd Congressional District said, 'Steve go up there and fight to change the culture in Washington.' I've taken their instructions very seriously."

Southerland campaigned on the GOP's pledge to cut $100 billion from the current budget. The $38 billion seems puny by comparison, far from the $61 billion approved by the Republican-led House in February.

Even so, it's the largest single cut ever, and the 87 new Republicans in the House share credit for pushing their party to do more.

"It's a little bit tense," said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, who shares Southerland's outspokenness in closed GOP meetings. "There's a lot of pressure to just sort of cave in. You have to give some credit to leadership. They could have ignored us and instead, they actually listened to us and took our voice into the negotiations."

The freshmen say they expect better results with the 2012 budget. This week, the House is expected to vote on the outline of a proposal that would cut $5.8 trillion over 10 years and mandate sweeping changes to Medicare.

Republicans will try to leverage that in return for supporting an increase in the nation's debt ceiling. Experts say failing to increase the level, now at $14.3 trillion, would have grave effects on the economy, including raising interest rates for mortgages and consumer loans.

"To me, the direction we're headed as a country is grave," Southerland said. "We're like a frog in a slow boil. I have no doubt that if we raise the debt ceiling that we're going to continue to spend money we don't have." To win his support, he said, concessions from Democrats will have to be "massive."

Southerland, 45, began to get more active in politics a few years ago when he formed a tea party-aligned group, Bay Patriots. His campaign relied on a strict interpretation of the Constitution and drastic spending cuts. "Had enough?" he asked in campaign literature.

Voters responded, allowing Southerland to topple seven-term incumbent Democrat Allen Boyd, whose votes for the health care overhaul and the federal stimulus proved his Achilles' heel.

Three other incumbent Democrats in Florida fell. All told, Republicans netted 63 House seats and control of the chamber. The newcomers felt a powerful mandate.

Boehner harnessed that eagerness for cuts in negotiations with Democrats last week while avoiding full-scale rebellion from those in his party who felt he fell short. Southerland is among them but feels his class has had a positive effect.

"We've brought a sense of urgency to Washington that they desperately needed," Southerland said. "I think voters appreciate that I'm not sitting in the back row, waiting for my turn."

John Gioiello, a 56-year-old lawyer in Panama City, said he showed up at Southerland's first town hall meeting and berated him for not joining the tea party caucus. Southerland, he said, explained he was on three committees (agriculture, natural resources and transportation) and was trying to assemble a staff. Now Gioiello, satisfied with Southerland's voting record, feels it may not be necessary.

"We'll continue to watch Steve very closely," Gioiello said. "Many of us worry about him getting sucked into the Kool-Aid up there in Washington. We're relying on the fact that we know Steve."

A gregarious, blunt-talking man, Southerland has lived nearly his entire life in Panama City. He met his wife, Susan, in first grade and they have four girls.

One big test will be how he approaches the proposed restructuring of Medicare under the GOP proposal, a risky political move that Democrats already are jumping on. Southerland said he generally supports looking at entitlements but has not studied the proposal in detail.

It's also unclear whether Southerland's district will continue to support deep budget cuts as the effect begins to trickle down in less government services. Nationally, House Republicans have seen diminished approval ratings.

At a town hall in Tallahassee, a man chastised Southerland for voting to cut funding for public broadcasting, one of many symbolic votes Republicans have made in the House only to be stopped in the Democratic-held Senate.

Southerland conceded his daughters grew up watching Sesame Street, but did not relent. "With all due respect, sir, it is your responsibility and my responsibility to provide educational programs for our children," he said. "Nowhere in the Constitution, sir, does it say the federal government is responsible for providing that opportunity."

As he braces for the next battle, Southerland said he feels in the right place. "I need to be there right now because I believe that I get it."

U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland emblematic of rebellious freshmen class 04/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 10:33pm]
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