Close-Knit, New to the House, and Resistant to Blending In

April 11, 2011
Press Release

Close-Knit, New to the House, and Resistant to Blending In

WASHINGTON — Even by the standards of Capitol Hill, where the bonds of friendship form quickly and endure, the four Republican freshmen from South Carolina stand out.

They eat most dinners together (their newest find is Thai) and play basketball, poorly, in the House gym between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. They can be seen walking out of the Capitol into the afternoon sun, just to chat about family.

And they were together late Friday night, when they shared a prayer before going to the House floor to vote with a mere 24 other Republicans against a spending deal hatched by Democrats and Speaker John A. Boehner to keep the government running.

“We come from a state that is prepared to go at a quicker pace with respect to cutting and reshaping and resizing government,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of the South Carolina delegation, a former prosecutor.

The new lawmakers — Mr. Gowdy and Representatives Jeff Duncan, Mick Mulvaney and Tim Scott — are making their own mark, both within their freshman caucus, where they are well liked and respected (Mr. Scott is on the freshman leadership team), and among House leaders.

Their vote Friday against a short-term spending agreement, after a bruising battle that put the federal government an eyelash away from shuttering, is a bracing reminder for Mr. Boehner of the challenges he will continue to face as he tries to lasso his caucus —particularly its most conservative backbenchers, who are spoiling for the fight with Democrats.

Coming into this year, one of the great questions about the 87 Republican freshmen who rode the anti-establishment wave into the House was whether they would be swept up in the culture of Washington, compromising for the sake of party unity and losing what had made them distinct to a frustrated electorate last fall.

If the four South Carolina freshmen are any indication, though, the new members are doing just the opposite — turning to one another for mutual reinforcement and support, creating a ballast wall against the business-as-usual climate that tends to homogenize elected officials. And there are signs that their fellow freshmen from states like Arkansas, Florida and Illinois are standing together as well.

While the four men are still pondering how they will vote next week on the bill to finance the government through the rest of the year, they conceded that their “no” vote against a short-term bridge plan was a pretty good harbinger.

“Trey said if you’re going to vote no on the final spending plan, you should vote against the one that gets you there,” Mr. Duncan said.

South Carolina, with its hardscrabble political culture, small-town milieu and complex role in American history, has produced its share of notable politicians, from John C. Calhoun in the 19th century to Representative Joe Wilson, whose contemporary claim to fame was yelling “You lie!” at President Obama as he delivered a speech before Congress.

This reliably conservative state, where the economy is deeply troubled and town-hall-style meetings are regularly full of voters pressing lawmakers to tame the national debt, has produced four congressmen who are unlikely to back down too much as they seek deeper spending cuts and far-reaching changes to social policy.

“These guys are extremely popular here,” said Katon Dawson, a recent chairman of the Republican Party in South Carolina, which is a crucial proving ground for Republican presidential candidates. “If your rhetoric matches your votes in South Carolina, you never have a re-election problem.”

Of course, members from the same state often hang together. But the particularly tight bond among the four men has been noted by their peers.

Mr. Duncan, Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Scott all overlapped in the South Carolina Legislature. Mr. Gowdy, who never held political office before, knew some of them from the Liberty Fellowship, a nonpartisan leadership program for South Carolinians.

“The state is not particularly large,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “If you’re in politics, you’re going to start to see the same people over and over again.”

The four men often feel compelled to account for one another’s votes, and frequently visit their neighboring districts to provide backup.

For example, Mr. Mulvaney met with business leaders in Charleston the Monday after Mr. Scott, whose district covers part of the city, voted for an earlier version of the short-term spending plan.

“There were a lot of folks there saying, ‘Why has Tim changed?’ ” Mr. Mulvaney said. “Not only was I able to defend him, I was really happy to defend him. It was tactics, and I was able to help him get that message out in his district.”

The men do not always vote in tandem, but they consult regularly — with Mr. Mulvaney on budget matters, and Mr. Scott and Mr. Duncan on legislative tactics and energy. Mr. Gowdy advised his colleagues on provisions of the Patriot Act before a vote on it.

“We got together to talk about Friday’s vote as we have many, many times and said, ‘Where are you on this?’ ” Mr. Duncan said.

The men are aware that their state has been dinged repeatedly on the national stage, including over the Miss Teen USA contestant who struggled mightily with a question about Americans and maps and over the former governor, Mark Sanford, who reinvented what it meant to walk the Appalachian Trail.

“We have a poor reputation nationally,” Mr. Scott acknowledged. “And I think sometimes when you feel like an underdog, the troops coalesce.”

The men are close outside work, too. Mr. Duncan and Mr. Scott share an apartment, and Mr. Gowdy, who sleeps in his office, and Mr. Mulvaney, who prefers inexpensive hotels, are considering a share of their own.

Mr. Mulvaney is the group’s restaurant sleuth. He discovered a Thai restaurant they all like to frequent — it was Mr. Duncan’s first time with that type of cuisine — and Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex spot near the Capitol.

“I also found the Democrat Chinese restaurant,” he said. “We went the other night. There were pictures of Democrats all over the wall.” They soon realized they had stumbled into a fund-raiser for Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, the Ohio liberal and sometime presidential candidate.

“We stayed,” Mr. Mulvaney said. “The food was good.”

The lawmakers said they would not be easily pressed into votes for measures they felt would compromise their standards, even if the hands of leadership weigh heavy upon them in the coming battle over whether to raise the country’s debt ceiling or to support a Republican budget plan that would rewrite major entitlement programs.

“We have no influence and no seniority,” Mr. Gowdy said. “Our only hope is advocating together for the people of South Carolina.”

Published in the New York Times on April 11, 2011.  Visit