The Return of the Old Republican Guard

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Young Marines donning formal Dress Blues--stiff white hats, pressed khaki shirts with matching ties, and blue pants with a singular red stripe on each leg--are escorting newly elected members of Congress to the baggage claim at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Once their bags are loaded, a fleet of black sedans chauffeurs the new additions to the 112th Congress past marble monuments of the nation's heroes. On the horizon one can see a sliver of the majestic Capitol dome lit up from a bright fall sun. That dome is now their office, and for many in this year's freshmen class their time in Washington marks their first ever elected public service.

Mixed in with all the political novices are six veteran Republicans who rode the same wave back to power after having lost or left their jobs in the past decade. The mostly gray haired or balding men know Washington, they remember the strategic mistakes their party made the last time they held the reigns, and, as both veterans and newcomers, they're uniquely positioned to mediate between the energized ranks of new Republicans and senior party leaders.

Representatives-elect Steve Chabot of Ohio and Charlie Bass of New Hampshire were ushered into power in the 1994 Republican Revolution. Former and now future Indiana Senator Dan Coats was already in office during that time. These returning members still carry the vivid memories--and even some political scars--of battle with the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

The Republican dominance of the mid 1990s and early 2000s came to a screeching halt in the 2006 and 2008 elections, which temporarily kept these House members out of office (Coats retired voluntarily in 1999).

The party admits it made many mistakes while in power. As Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich led the party in a bruising fight with President Clinton that ended up hurting the party's image; for example, shutting down the government twice, or the unpopular and highly partisan impeachment battle (which was one of 37 investigations into the Clinton White House).

Then with George W. Bush in the White House and the GOP in control of both chambers of Congress, the party allowed the deficit to balloon while also setting the record for earmarks in 2005 by including 13,997 pet projects in spending bills, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

"We need to get it right this time. And if I had to put my finger on one thing that I think we as a group went astray, it was on the spending and that we've got to be much more fiscally disciplined than we were," offered Chabot shortly after flying to Washington from Cincinnati. "We were pretty good early on, but then we went off the tracks."

Now observers say the party faces the problem of going off the tracks in a different direction. Many of the new Tea Party members are bringing some drastic, as well as small but significant, deficit cutting proposals to the table, which could hurt the party with Independent voters in 2012.

Republican Party leaders are working hard to bring the freshman class into their fold, but it may not be easy.

"It will be a delicate matter to keep those folks on the reservation," according to UCLA congressional scholar Barbara Sinclair. "Keep them feeling like they are contributing, being listened to, having influence--without letting them do things or push the whole Republican membership into doing things that are political poison when you get beyond the Republican base."

The tension has already started bubbling to the surface in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had, until today, opposed a ban on GOP earmarks, pitting himself against the new wave of fiscal conservatives.

In the House, some freshmen are trying to roll back members' mailing privileges, reduce lawmaker's pensions, and set term limits for Congress--all ideas sure to be received coolly by many senior Republicans. Not to mention the politically unpopular initial findings from the president's debt commission, which puts everything from raising the Social Security retirement age to slashing the military's budget on the table.

These returning members, who also include Congressmen-elect Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Tim Walberg of Michigan, and Steve Pearce of New Mexico, may prove to be an asset to party leaders, because they're veteran legislators and yet they also represent the new face of the GOP.

"I've been contacted or in touch with a number of my former and soon-to-be colleagues who are up high in the seniority ladder, about establishing relationships with the new members of Congress," said Charlie Bass, a moderate from the Northeast. "So I may be able to act to some extent as a liaison between the incumbents, if you will, and the new people coming in."

Since the election, the party has portrayed a united front on abstract notions of reducing the deficit and creating jobs, but a crucial test for the party, especially in the House where they'll hold the gavels, comes in January when the party will be responsible for passing the nation's laws. All eyes will be on Republicans.

"The American people are giving us a second chance, and I don't think they're going to give us a third," Chabot said.

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Matt Laslo is a freelance congressional reporter. Since 2009 he’s sat on the board at the Regional Reporters Association. For a daily glimpse of the inner workings of Congress, follow him on Twitter @MattLaslo.

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