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Congressional Rookies Set New Tone

The 42 new House members and 8 new senators over 50 boast of business and street savvy

Congressmen with letter

In the form of a hand-delivered letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid, a group of House Republican freshmen called on the Senate to pass a long-term continuing resolution with spending cuts. — Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

The new kids in town have stormed in with plans to upend Washington, slash spending and shrink government.

See also: If the government shuts down.

How that gigantic class of new members of Congress meshes with Washington realities in coming weeks could determine whether the government is shut down, defaults on its debts or takes a small step to closing the gigantic budget deficit.

Aging congress chart

The freshman class sworn in on Jan. 5 includes a large group of 50-plus Americans — eight of the 14 new senators and more than 40 of the 94 new House members. Most of the new lawmakers over 50 are Republicans, carried into office on a conservative wave of voter anger over deficit spending and government regulation.

The 50-plus newcomers have given an even harder edge to the antispending rhetoric. That stems, in part, from a black-and-white mentality that many of the new members bring from the business world, which makes them less likely to defer to congressional leaders than would people trained in politics, says American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman J. Ornstein. They have a visceral distaste for government and call for big spending cuts without fully understanding their impact, he says. They will bring those strong views to the votes on the debt limit and on whether to shut down government. "But now you're playing with live ammunition," Ornstein says.

That live ammunition is the high stakes of decisions before Congress, namely whether to risk a government shutdown or even default if they don't reach their budget-cutting goals. Those are pressing issues that gave freshman Republicans an opportunity they couldn't pass up. Frustrated with what they regard as Senate Democrats' unwillingness to act on their proposed budget cuts, a group of 10 Republican freshmen marched to the Senate and taped an envelope addressed "To Mr. Reid" on the door, targeting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The contingent included Rep. E. Scott Rigell, R-Va., 51, who told reporters he was not in a mood to compromise. "If the objective of keeping the government open is such a high priority that one is willing to accept potentially continual increases in the federal debt [through large amounts of deficit spending], I'm not in that camp," he said.

Next: Differences on the debt limit. >>

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