Tea Party to Washington: 'Pain Should Be Shared by Everyone'

Diane Sawyer interviews 10 freshmen lawmakers.

January 4, 2011, 8:59 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2011 -- Welcome to Washington

"Energized." "Determined." "Convicted." Those are the words a few incoming lawmakers used to describe their feelings on the eve of the 112th Congress as they prepare to take power in the House of Representatives.

In a "World News" Exclusive, eight newly elected representatives and two senators-elect sat down with Diane Sawyer to discuss their vision for the country and how they plan to follow through on the promises that propelled them into power in Washington.

Perhaps most noteworthy and despite wide agreement that a showdown is looming over tea partiers' willingness to authorize more debt, the freshmen members of Congress indicated that they can support a higher national debt limit -- if it's accompanied by an agreement to achieve a balanced budget.

It's the largest influx of new members of Congress in the House in nearly 20 years -- and it's mostly Republican. Eighty-five new Republicans will be sworn into the House today, joining just nine lonely Democrats. The journey that ended at the steps of the Capitol this week began many miles away and, for many, with no thought of entering public life. At least 35 of have never held elected office before.

"I think we need people from different walks of life," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Sawyer. "We need people who have been outside government service."

But as they wander the halls of the Congressional buildings in search of the bathroom, cafeteria or the subway to the Capitol, these Tea Party newcomers maintain they know why they have come to Washington.

"What [the American people] want is for us to stand for the proposition that the federal government is too big and it's too expensive because it's trying to do too many things," Sen.-elect Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Sawyer.

Republicans have pledged to cut $100 billion in the first fiscal year that starts this fall. But the budget-cutting pledge will be put to the test even sooner than that, with Congress needing to approve a new spending bill by early March just to keep the government running.

"We will not spend more than we take in," Rep.-elect Frank Guinta, R-N.H., said. "Our families live by that rule."

"Adult Decisions"

Republicans, however, may be forced to spend more than they take in, once two big votes on the economy come up: The Continuing Resolution and the vote to raise the debt ceiling are likely to generate a political firestorm.

"This is going to be probably the first really big adult moment for the new Republican majority," Boehner told The New Yorker in a recent interview. "You can underline 'adult.' And for people who've never been in politics it's going to be one of those growing moments. It's going to be difficult, I'm certainly well aware of that. But we'll have to find a way to help educate members and help people understand the serious problem that would exist if we didn't do it."

So what of this imminent "adult moment?"

"I like the adult moment," Rep.-elect Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said. "Because adults sit down and talk about budgets. They look at them and say, 'OK, I'm in the hole and here's how I get out of the hole."

Rep.-elect Scott Tipton, R-Colo., agreed: "It really goes back to the fact we are facing a crisis and we've been living in a country as if we don't have one. It's always more money and bigger government."

And despite wide agreement that a showdown is looming over tea partiers' willingness to authorize more debt, the freshmen members of Congress indicated that they can support a higher national debt limit -- if it's accompanied by an agreement to achieve a balanced budget.

"I personally think that's the answer," Lee said.

"If there's a balanced budget Constitutional amendment that is tied to the debt ceiling, I will vote to increase the debt limit under those conditions," Rep.-elect Mo Brooks, R-Ala., said. "But we have to make progress. This unsustainable deficit that we are incurring is the greatest national security threat that American faces."

When asked about the controversy voting to increase the debt limit might cause, one member had strong words: "There is a time for campaigning and a time to govern," Guinta said. "There is now a time to govern and everyone needs to come to the table with solutions."

When pressed about whether each would vote in support of the Continuing Resolution, a type of legislation used to fund government agencies if a formal appropriations bill has not been signed into law by the end of the Congressional fiscal year, the crowd of newcomers indicated they were open but their votes would come with conditions.

"This is something that has been growing over time and it's not going to be cured right away," Gosar said. "We have to look at what created this problem and set benchmarks. I'm not willing to look at [voting for the Continuing Resolution] unless I see benchmarks and I'm given some concessions as to when those benchmarks will be met."

"We should have a chance to introduce spending cuts," Paul said.

'The Pain Should be Shared by Everyone'

When asked where the cuts should come from, Rep.-elect Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., suggested restoring all spending levels to 2008, across the board, and ensuring unspent stimulus funds remain that way.

And what if jobs are lost as a result of the cuts?

"That is typical Washington speak," Guinta fired back in response to a question about potential teacher lay-offs as a result of deep cuts in government spending. "We are here to represent and reflect the values of the country and the country has said very directly, 'Stop the spending and restore a small sense and size of government.'"

"Is this a big showdown?" Sawyer asked.

"There's got to be a time where you say 'no,' where you say 'no more.' We've got to get our house in order," Hartzler said.

Hartzler, whose home district of Missouri is a large beneficiary of farm subsidies, said even those, all $20 billion of them, should be "on the table."

"Right now we need to do the adult thing, the hard thing, not the easy thing," she said.

"Every single thing needs to be on the table," Rep.-elect Mike Grimm, R-N.Y., added. "Because the pain should be shared by everyone."

But as to $5 billion a month being spent in Afghanistan, not one of the 10 would go on the record saying that type of spending should be cut.

'Bigger Than the Tea Party' or Backing Off the Rhetoric?

For all the fiery campaign rhetoric thrown around during the midterm elections, the freshmen members seem to have scaled back their rhetoric now that they've arrived in Washington. A few even refused to call themselves Tea Partiers.

"I feel I'm American first and here to serve the people of New Hampshire," Guinta said.

"It's much bigger than the Tea Party," Grimm said. "The Tea Party seems to be the face of the average American that's not involved in politics. They want us to work together. A one-party system doesn't work."

Paul said he had spoken with President Obama in person to express his desire to work together and was even working on arranging a meeting between their daughters.

"I told him that from one who is seen as being associated with the Tea Party, I want to make sure he knows that I want a civil discourse," Paul said.

"We are all human beings first," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. "I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad about it. I can do it with a smile on my face."

One member who did claim the Tea Party label was Hartzler.

"It's just common sense," she said. "It's the way we should be."

When pressed by Sawyer about the anger shown during the recent midterm elections, much of it aimed at former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the group maintained it wasn't personal.

"On a personal level, I'll be happy to go out to lunch with her and chat," Brooks said. "But we're going to fight pretty hard when it comes down to some of the basic beliefs that we have, whether we're going to be socialists, for example, or believe in the free enterprise system."

Turning to Lee, Sawyer pressed again: "Senator, there was a sense everyone had come to storm the castle."

"I couldn't disagree more," Lee said. "The idea behind the Tea Party movement is neither partisan nor is it angry."

Creating a Legacy on a Time Limit

Whether these new members survive the next election cycle remains to be seen. Not a single one, however, said they expect to be in Congress 10 years from now, a remarkable statement given Congress's ability, with all its power and perks, to make a career politician out of just about anyone.

"We're here for a finite period to represent what the people want us to do," Guinta said. "We're not here to do anything for ourselves, but for the country."

"This will be the legacy of the Tea Party movement: Not protesting, but problem solving," Lee said. "That's what the Tea Party movement is about. That's why we're here."

"I think Republicans were given a second chance, but I don't think we're going to be given a third," Rep.-elect Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, said. "And I'm worried what happens in the next two years if we don't get something done."

At least one member, Gosar, said he is so committed to not getting too comfortable in Washington, he has forgone renting an apartment or buying a house for sleeping on a blow-up mattress in his office.

Each freshman also revealed their plan to stay grounded and remember what they see as their mission in Congress:

"I want to try and participate in a big way, in a big debate, in big ideas that could change our country. I want some rules in Washington, and then I'll go back and be a doctor," Paul said.

And what about the certain loneliness that will come in being away from the family?

"Skype's a beautiful thing," Lee said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events