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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

Differences on the debt limit

The group of 50-plus freshmen includes a dentist, an auctioneer, a car dealer, a roofing contractor and a pilot — and more than two dozen millionaires, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. It also includes an unusually large number of people without any political experience. "For some of them, I wonder if this is what they thought they were getting into," says Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, a former California state House speaker, noting the difficulties of changing an institution that's been around for more than two centuries. "It's not going to happen as fast as they thought."

The new freshmen 50 and older say they've run into many surprises in Washington, from the pace of the job to the lack of comity between parties.

Of more than a dozen older freshmen questioned by the AARP Bulletin, one thing they agree on nearly unanimously is that the nation's unemployment is among their top priorities. Few of those who answered a Bulletin questionnaire or were interviewed say they plan major changes to Social Security. But many of the Republicans would like to repeal the health care reform law passed last year.

Soon they will vote on whether to extend the nation's debt limit. The strength of the entire freshman class sworn in this January — 14 in the Senate and 94 in the House — could tip the balance on whether it passes.

"We need less government and more innovation. We need fewer agencies and regulations that burden small businesses," says Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. He says he will vote to raise the debt limit only if "there are significant benchmarks in place that cut spending and tie it to a balanced budget."

Freshmen like Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., are leery of increasing the debt limit. He says he will vote only for small expansions of the debt ceiling, and only if they are combined with budget cuts. "We must not forget the fact that the federal government has been addressing the debt by printing more money, which robs seniors of buying power."

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., says the debt limit must be raised because defaulting would "have devastating consequences for our economy."

Brookings Institution senior fellow Thomas Mann says the large freshman class makes a shutdown and debt limit failure more likely. The lack of previous political experience for many of them also is a factor, he says.

"It makes them inclined to set unrealistic goals and to avoid the kind of genuine deliberation that is essential to good policymaking," Mann says.

Joseph Unekis, associate professor of political science at Kansas State University, agrees. "The people coming in right now are in no mood to compromise."

Next: Many are loath to change Social Security. >>

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