Jaime Herrera Beutler carves niche in debt fight

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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2012 CAMPAIGN DONORS

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler had raised $334,292 for her 2012 re-election campaign as of the end of June, including $152,000 from political action committees.

Her largest contributors to date:

• Brian Charneski, L&E Bottling, Tumwater: $5,000.

• Tanya Jernigan, Diamond Technologies, Olympia: $5,000.

• Every Republican PAC is Critical, Washington, D.C.: $5,000.

• Growth and Prosperity PAC, Montgomery, Ala., $5,000.

Source: Federal Election Commission

The Republican landslide that swept Jaime Herrera Beutler to victory in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in November didn’t take long to hit home in Southwest Washington.

For the first time since Republican Linda Smith won the seat in 1994, the 3rd is represented by a bedrock conservative.

And like Smith, Herrera Beutler joined a large, conservative freshman class of House Republicans dedicated to shaking things up in Washington, D.C.

One week ago, the newcomers’ insistence on deep cuts in federal spending as a condition for raising the nation’s debt ceiling brought the nation to the brink of default.

On Monday, Herrera Beutler, a 32-year-old former state legislator, voted with the House leadership for a deal that lifts the debt ceiling while guaranteeing that Congress will be embroiled in a debate over shrinking the size of the federal government through the 2012 election and beyond.

Her vote wasn’t a surprise; her mentor and former boss, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, is a member of House Speaker John Boehner’s leadership team. But Herrera Beutler campaigned last year for deep cuts in federal spending tied to an increase in the federal debt ceiling. She said it was hard for her to cast that vote for a debt ceiling hike.

It’s not clear whether the vote will help her woo voters, including an energized Tea Party constituency, in her re-election campaign. She’s heard from both supporters and opponents of the deal since Monday.

Herrera Beutler is not a member of the House Tea Party Caucus and has not espoused the views of its most extreme members, who welcomed the prospect of default on the nation’s debt and dismissed warnings of economic catastrophe. Instead, she expressed confidence that the parties would reach a compromise that would avert default.

“It seemed to me that we could have a solution,” she said. “This is what we get paid to do, this is why people send me to Washington, to solve problems, not exacerbate them.”

What she values about Tea Party members, she says, is that “they are average people who say the government works for us, not the other way around.”

Clark County Republican Chairman Brandon Vick said the debt ceiling vote was a tough one for the congresswoman, who wanted much deeper cuts in federal spending and backed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution as a way to get there.

“She really struggled with the decision and went back and forth,” Vick said. “She was pragmatic; she did what she thought was best. One thing that has been overlooked is that a portion of seniors were genuinely worried they might not get their Social Security checks.”

Conservative views

A review of Herrera Beutler’s voting record seven months into her term shows she has been a reliable vote for advancing the conservative ideology of the new Republican majority.

She voted not to fund national health reform, voted for a 2012 budget that would turn Medicare into a voucher program, voted to prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and to stop funding Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio.

According to Govtrack, a nonpartisan congressional rating service, Herrera Beutler has yet to distinguish herself among the 87 conservative Republicans who stormed the House in January. Based on her bill sponsorship, Govtrack rates her a “centrist Republican follower.” A graph of that record puts her squarely in the center ideologically and at the bottom in terms of leadership, not unusual for a first-term member.

State Rep. Jim Moeller of Vancouver, a liberal Democrat, says Herrera Beutler’s voting record reflects political views that may not match those of her constituents in the 3rd District, traditionally a swing district positioned somewhere between conservative Eastern Washington and liberal Puget Sound.

“If I were in her shoes, I would probably try to weave a centrist view on a lot of things,” Moeller said. “I’m kind of surprised she hasn’t done that.”

“She had three years of voting records in the state Legislature,” countered state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, Herrera Beutler’s seatmate and fellow 18th District representative from 2008 to 2010. “I think people had a very good idea of who she was and that she wanted to go change things in Washington, D.C., and be part of the solution, and I think that’s exactly what she’s trying to do.”

“I believe I’m hitting the target with a majority of folks,” Herrera Beutler said. “There will always be people who aren’t happy with me, both on the right and on the left. My goal is to hit the sweet spot for the majority. I do believe people in this district want us to get our fiscal house in order.”

A new voice

Herrera Beutler’s adherence to the conservative GOP party line is in sharp contrast to the voting record of her predecessor, Brian Baird, a Democratic maverick who frequently crossed swords with House leadership and only reluctantly voted for health reform, the signature piece of legislation in President Barack Obama’s first two years in office.

“Even though Baird was not always as Democratic as I wanted him to be, Herrera Beutler is just in lockstep with the Republican leadership,” said Ed Cote, a Democratic national committeeman from Vancouver.

Herrera Beutler campaigned for Congress on a platform of slashing federal spending, repealing “Obamacare” and reducing government regulations to encourage small businesses to expand and hire new workers.

In April, she hosted a roundtable discussion with business owners at the Port of Vancouver to learn which government regulations they found most burdensome. But many said their biggest problem was soaring gas prices. In response, she announced that she would join other members of Congress in promoting policies to help the nation address rising energy costs and help the U.S. achieve energy independence.

Since then, she has voted to require the government to award oil and natural gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and to ease environmental regulations on companies drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska.

She recently voted in favor of a bill that opponents said would weaken the Clean Water Act by kicking authority over clean water regulations to the states. That drew a rebuke from the Sierra Club.

“As a new member of Congress, Jaime Herrera Beutler’s record is shaping up as anti-environmental,” said Sierra Club organizer Kathleen Ridihalgh in a statement. “She represents a district that values clean energy innovation, health, and clean air and water. Her voting record is out of step with those values.”

“She’s been thoughtful about the votes she’s taken,” said her spokesman, Casey Bowman. He pointed to her recent vote against language in a budget bill that would have gutted the Endangered Species Act by withholding funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect new plant and animal species.

On health reform, Herrera Beutler kept a campaign promise by voting early on to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s health reform law, and specifically voted to repeal funding for state health benefit exchanges at a time when her home state of Washington is in the process of setting up such exchanges. The exchanges are at the heart of the health reform law because they will allow those without employer-provided health insurance to buy into a pool offering a menu of affordable insurance options.

On defense, she voted against a bill requiring an accelerated timetable for pulling out 100,000 troops from Afghanistan. It nearly passed, with 26 Republicans joining 178 Democrats in favor. She has questioned Obama’s decision to deploy American troops in the NATO intervention in Libya, and has voted three times to end U.S. involvement in the Libya campaign.

She has occasionally strayed from the party line. For example, she voted against a bill authorizing an extension of the USA Patriot Act because she said it was rushed through the House without letting members have a robust debate about the measure.

She was one of two Republicans to vote against terminating a program that helps financially strapped homeowners facing foreclosure.

She also crossed the GOP leadership when she voted in favor of cutting farm subsidies for big agribusiness, returning Defense Department appropriations to 2008 levels, and requiring oil and gas leases off the Washington Coast to be approved by the state’s Legislature and governor.

Controversial vote

Herrera Beutler’s vote in April in favor of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s sweeping 10-year spending and budget blueprint may prove to be the most consequential in next year’s campaign.

The budget bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate, would replace today’s Medicare insurance program with a system that would provide seniors with federal payments and let them buy their own coverage in the private health insurance market. Payments would not be tied to inflation in the cost of health care, and Ryan himself has acknowledged that his plan would shift more of the burden of health care costs to seniors.

Herrera Beutler has defended the vote, saying the Ryan plan would save Medicare from bankruptcy as early as 2020. Still, she acknowledges that her vote will be a campaign issue in 2012. “I will get hit from every side,” she predicted after the vote.

Sure enough, Democrats packed her Vancouver town hall in May to denounce her Medicare vote.

Washington Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz says he intends to make that vote the linchpin of the party’s campaign to unseat her next year.

“She’s out of sync with the 3rd District,” Pelz said. “She voted for the Ryan plan, which eliminates Medicare as we know it. It’s a scheme to cut taxes for rich people. She voted to give more tax breaks to rich people and take away Medicare from middle-class people.”

In the district

Herrera Beutler spends at least one week a month in her district, which stretches from the Columbia River to Olympia and from the Pacific Ocean to the Washington Cascades. So far, she has held just two town halls in Clark County — one in Battle Ground and one in Vancouver in May. She has also held forums in Centralia, Longview and Ilwaco.

Her district office in the O.O. Howard House on Officers Row is staffed with familiar faces. Former Clark County Republican Chairman Ryan Hart is her district manager, overseeing a staff of seven. Keith Bundy, her former legislative assistant, is Hart’s deputy.

Instead of staffing other permanent offices, for now her staff travels across the district, holding regular mobile office hours to hear from constituents.

She does most of her communicating through Bowman, her spokesman, who churns out carefully crafted press releases with canned quotes that usually include a dash of partisan rhetoric.

In person, she frequently falls back on talking points provided by the GOP leadership, though with experience she has gained confidence in one-on-one interviews.

On one of the most contentious issues in the 3rd District — how to pay for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River — Herrera Beutler has proved a lightning rod.

She sought a coveted seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and succeeded in bringing the committee to Vancouver for a field hearing on the Columbia River Crossing. She says she supports a new bridge, but has consistently questioned the funding assumptions underlying the project. Her questioning proved prescient; state treasurers in Washington and Oregon recently warned that bridge tolls will fall nearly $600 million short of producing the projected revenue in the current financing plan.

And she has raised the hackles of Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, among others, with her demand for a C-Tran districtwide vote on whether to raise taxes to pay for operation and maintenance of a light rail line serving Vancouver. Herrera Beutler says such a vote, held as early as possible, would serve as a referendum on the bridge project. She has threatened to withhold support for the project without it.

In a letter last month, Leavitt called her position “disappointing and perplexing.”

“Re-calibrate your position and join the large bipartisan effort to protect the future of economic vitality of SW Washington and our entire country,” he urged. “Leadership from you is necessary.”

In February, Herrera Beutler weighed in on another hot-button issue, a decision by the U.S. Interior Department allowing the Cowlitz Tribe to place 152 acres west of La Center in trust for a future tribal casino. She questioned the tribe’s role in paying for the government’s environmental and economic study of the proposed casino. Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall said that’s standard procedure; in fact the Bureau of Indian Affairs requires tribes to pay for such studies.

Like Baird, she has shown her willingness to use her clout to push for her constituents’ concerns.

Baird did not hesitate to use his influence to push for a controversial destination resort in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area or to give residents of Southwest Washington a say in the siting of a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Oregon’s Clatsop County.

As the congresswoman representing Pacific County, Herrera Beutler successfully pressured the state’s salmon restoration board this spring to withdraw funding for a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restoration plan on the Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Facing re-election

With Herrera Beutler’s election, Washington’s congressional delegation shifted to a 5-4 Democrat-Republican split. Democrats vow she’ll be a one-term member of Congress.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who faces a re-election campaign next year, told a partisan audience at Clark County Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in June, “I want to win Clark County, I want to win the 3rd District, and I want to take a new congressperson back with me.”

Democratic Party chairman Pelz said the party will recruit a strong candidate to run against Herrera Beutler in 2012. “I absolutely think she’s beatable,” he said.

So far, no Democrat has stepped forward to challenge her, though Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart is rumored to be considering the race.

Asked about his plans, Stuart was noncommittal. “I’m watching and evaluating,” he said.

Pelz doesn’t expect a candidate to enter the race until the commission that is redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative district boundaries completes its work at the end of this year.

Because the fast-growing 3rd District must shrink in size, many observers expect it will lose heavily Democratic Thurston County, the seat of state government and home to many state employees, changing it from a swing district to one that leans Republican.

County Republican chairman Vick agrees that redistricting could work in Herrera Beutler’s favor. “I’ve heard numbers of 54 to 56 percent Republican,” he said.

Vick says Herrera Beutler’s vote on deficit reduction should be a plus next year.

“Jaime campaigned as a pretty stout fiscal conservative the first time around,” he said. “I think she’s going to do that again. It’s definitely going to be an issue from both sides. A lot of questions are still unanswered regarding the future of the country. It’s definitely not an issue that’s going to go away. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to two candidates again.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent $1.7 million trying to defeat Herrera Beutler in 2010, has targeted her with attack messages from her first weeks in office. Its press releases typically paint their targets in the most extreme terms by quoting language in procedural bills Democrats put forward that have no chance of passing. Republicans used the tactic too, when they were in the minority.

“It’s a long-standing tradition,” Bowman said. “You could use it to tweak a bill but instead the minority party uses it to put in embarrassing language.”

In July, the DCCC sent out a press release declaring, “Representative Herrera Beutler Votes to Allow Airlines to Charge Service Members Baggage Fees.”

Outrageous? Sure. Misleading? Definitely, Bowman said. Herrera Beutler did vote against a procedural bill containing that language, he said, but she also co-sponsored a nonbinding resolution calling on airlines to voluntarily waive baggage fees for members of the armed forces returning from deployment overseas.

The DCCC also accuses Herrera Beutler of voting to protect corporations that ship jobs overseas, a generic claim that’s likely to be its focus next year. It’s a theme that could play well in the 3rd District, Bowman said, but it’s not true; Herrera Beutler has not cast a vote on any specific legislation that supports outsourcing jobs.

“Obviously she is trying to take action to allow companies to manufacture right here,” he said. “That’s why she is focusing on regulation.”

Herrera Beutler is well on the way to building a war chest for 2012. In the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission, she had raised $334,292 as of the end of June and had $52,726 in debts. Her donations included $152,000 from political action committees.

Seattle-based pollster Stuart Elway said it’s hard to predict how the 3rd District race will play out in 2012. “Her district is going to change,” he said. “I’d be surprised if someone didn’t challenge her.”

Her chances for re-election, Elway said, depend on “three huge factors,” none of which are in her control: “What will her district look like, who is her opponent, and what is the condition of the country and the voters’ response to it a year from now?”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.