Earlier this month, voters in Southwest Washington decided to send U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, back to Congress for a second term. Last week, Herrera Beutler sat down for an interview in her Vancouver office and outlined the challenges ahead.
The 34-year-old congresswoman was elected to the U.S. House in 2010 and previously served as a representative in the state House. She easily defended her congressional seat this year from Democratic challenger Jon Haugen, a commercial airline and former Navy pilot from Vancouver.
The following interview with Herrera Beutler has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: How might your second congressional term differ from your first?
Herrera Beutler: As a nation, we're still facing some of the same problems. For me, my focus is still going to be jobs and economic growth. That was the same challenge two years ago. It's going to be the same moving forward. What I'll be attempting to add to is the conciliatory atmosphere. The American people basically returned the same (partisan makeup)in the U.S. House, Senate the White House back to Washington, D.C. We need to find a way to make this work.
Would you support tax increases for the wealthiest Americans during the upcoming debate about the "fiscal cliff" (which looms as tax breaks are set to expire and automatic spending cuts are set to take effect)?
I'm really keeping options open. I'm not drawing any lines in the sand. What we really need to be doing, seriously and honestly, is looking at every option and having a conversation about it, and so I've been kind of careful not to say: "Well this looks good, or this looks good." For me, I'm going to weigh whatever that final product is, with: "Do I think this final product is in the best interest of Southwest Washington?" That would be my only line. But to pick … a piece right now is a good way to close off your options.
Unlike most House Republicans, you voted against blocking automatic cuts to military spending. Have you received any flak from your party for that?
Definitely from certain individuals, yeah. Not from my leadership. I have a good relationship with them. I will vote how I see fit, and there's kind of a mutual respect there. Certain individuals who are really pro-defense contractors definitely have made their displeasure known.
Look, it's taxpayer dollars, whetherit's at the Pentagon or Homeland Security or health services or transportation.
Will repealing the 2010 health care reform law be a priority for you during your second term?
I'm on record as having opposed it. I still think there's a better way to do it, but right now, people still need a job. There are a lot of challenges out there. I hope we start with the things that can get done first. I'm not opposed to changing the law of the land, but at the same time we've got taxes coming and automatic spending cuts. I think we need to focus on first things first.
A recent editorial in The Oregonian criticized your stance against light rail on the Columbia River Crossing. The editorial says redesigning the bridge replacement project would delay job growth in this region. Care to respond?
The CRC project has not stopped, but it's stuck in the mud, and there are two reasons. The first reason has to do with the fact that right now the bridge is too low, and as it stands, it can't get permitted by the Coast Guard or the Army Corps.
The second issue is that the voters in Clark County just said that they don't like the transit portion of the CRC enough to pay for it. (If the project's environmental impact statement has to be reopened to address the bridge height, then) it seems like a good opportunity to also say, well, let's take into account what the Clark County citizens want. Now's the time to make the CRC into something that meets our needs.
I'm in pushing for a transit option that people here want, and they've said it's not light rail. I think we can have a bridge, and we can get federal money for transit, and federal money for highways. But you know what? People are going to have to change their mind a little bit on what they thought they were going to get. And who knows, I might have to push a little harder.
Do Republicans need to shift their stance, or at least alter their tone, when discussing immigration reform?
I think we can do a better job of tone. For two years, I've said in my caucus: "You can believe what you want to believe, but our tone, our approach, is critical. Period." As a Hispanic who's been elected federally, I think that we have a tremendous opportunity to build a relationship, whether it's with Hispanics or just immigrants in general. They tend to be family-oriented, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and they like small businesses -- so they fit right in (with the Republican Party).
Would you support any kind of pathway to citizenship for people who live in this country illegally?
I'm looking at it. There's four of us who are part of my freshman class who are of Hispanic descent. We're looking in the House at how we can be part of the solution here. Again, I believe in the rule of law, but I think it's an area where we need to all look.
If we do our job and make sure there is a secure border, north and south, then we need a system whereby people can come here. That is one of the strengths of our nation's history, is that we are a nation of immigrants.
Do you have any ideas for legislation that could help curtail the effect of climate change? Is that a priority for you?
I think my approach is a little bit more: "How can we protect our way of life and our quality of life and still grow our economy?" I think it's definitely something we want to be cognizant of, but it is also a challenge.
There are things that we can do that won't just stop all growth and development. I honestly think that our environment and our economy do not need to be mutually exclusive.
How old were you when you realized you wanted to become an elected official?
I actually was pretty young. The first time I remember having an inkling was probably fifth or sixth grade, when you go on those field trips to Olympia. It captured my attention.
Do you see yourself running for higher office at some point, such as for a U.S. Senator position?
It is not on my radar. But, I never thought I would get to serve in the U.S. House now. I assumed I'd be in my 60s and a grandma and having retired. That all changed dramatically, so I learned to never say never, but I would have to feel like it was the best thing for our region for me to do that. And right now, it's looking like a real slim possibility.
How do you define yourself, philosophically?
I made a conscious decision I'm never going to put myself into a box because I think this region is 100 percent independent. Clark County and Cowlitz County both voted for President Barack Obama, and they also voted for me. In Washington, D.C., especially within the Republican caucus, they wouldn't consider me a hard-core, fire-breathing conservative.
If you look at the National Journal ranking, I am (the 222nd most conservative lawmaker out of all 435 House members). But I also very strongly believe in family. I am a woman of faith. I look at taxpayer dollars as someone else's money, not the government's. I really strongly believe that people know better how to govern their lives than a bureaucrat or an elected official. I believe you can get more done with honey than you can a stick -- but there are times push comes to shove.
Do you see yourself being a little more aggressive during your second term?
I don't think my approach is going to change. There have been a couple of times when I've had to be really aggressive. I'm sure there are a few times I'll have to be really aggressive. The only time when you can't get things done is when the person you're trying to negotiate or work with is not open. They want things done their way. And that's when sometimes you have to push.