Meaning What You Say

BY Gwen Ifill  February 18, 2011 at 3:17 PM EDT

It’s a familiar cycle. Voters say they want new faces and fresh thinking in Washington. But once the newcomers arrive in the nation’s capital, they discover themselves consigned to back benches and basement offices.

Reality soon sets in. It’s harder than it seems to get things done.

But in both the House and the Senate this year, first-termers are making their presence felt on deficit spending, defense budgets, anti-terror laws — and Big Bird.

The leader of the I-Meant-What-I-Said caucus in the U.S. Senate appears to be Kentucky’s Rand Paul, who ran an insistent and nearly humorless campaign last year. He railed against earmarks, repeatedly touched the Social Security reform third rail, and, along the way, knocked off a mainstream Republican – Secretary of State Trey Grayson – and a mainstream Democrat – Attorney General Jack Conway.

“Part of my reason for running for office is, is that it’s not just that I think we need another Republican,” Paul told me when I covered his campaign last October. “I think we need reform of the whole system.”

And Sen. Paul is still not backing down. He may still be finding his way around Capitol Hill, but he’s come up with his own budget plan – with twice the cuts his Republican colleagues endorse – and supports reducing foreign aid across the board. Soon, he promises, he will come up with his own plan to reform Social Security.

“You just have to acknowledge we’re living longer,” he told me of his plan this week. “But it’s tough, because everybody wants something from government, but they have to understand there are consequences to getting something from government if it has to be borrowed.”

Paul is not the only uncompromising member of this fractious freshman class. House Republican leaders went to the White House for lunch last week, then came out talking compromise. Not so the first-termers, who week after week are taking advantage of Speaker John Boehner’s pledge to allow open floor debate.

So far, they have voted to kill an expensive jet fighter engine (which President Obama was happy about), and forced their leaders to slash $100 billion from the current year budget (which the president has threatened to veto). (Among the proposed cuts: an end to the appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Arthur the Aardvark showed up at a news conference to object.)

Veteran Democrats as well as Republicans appear flummoxed by much of this, since it makes any pledge to find middle ground or compromise politically treacherous. In Wisconsin, Democratic lawmakers simply left town rather than work on Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to take away collective bargaining rights for public workers.

Whatever you think of Walker or Paul, or any of the other candidates who won election last fall under the Tea Party mantle, there is something to be said for a debate where the participants do seem to mean what they say.

Paul seems to especially relish taking on members of his own party. “I provoke them by saying, yes, you’re for a balanced budget amendment, but what are you going to cut?” he told me. “You lose your credibility with the media and everybody else if you don’t say, I will cut some spending.”

And yet … somewhere Big Bird is quacking.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.