Congress ‘Just Like Junior High’

Don’t let his age fool you. The youngest member of Congress says he thinks he has Capitol Hill all figured out, though he’s been on the job only 10 months.

“This place is a much more sophisticated junior high school,” 30-year-old Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said recently in an interview. “There are the nice guys that everybody likes, the jocks, the geeks, the bullies — they’re all here. It’s a representative democracy.”

It’s easy to imagine where McHenry fits in this analogy. The freshman lawmaker, whose birthday was Saturday, would be the kid brother, the one eager to subject himself to an occasional barb if it helps him get into the club.

At a White House lunch for new members, President Bush teased McHenry about his boyish appearance despite his prematurely graying hair. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., a former high school wrestling coach, put him in a playful headlock after a conference of House Republicans.

Brash, enthusiastic and a strong believer in an aggressive conservative agenda, McHenry is clearly looked upon by GOP leaders as just the type of eager-to-please foot soldier needed for carrying on their cause.

“He brings a fresh perspective to the issues at hand,” said Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for Hastert. “We are lucky to have him.”

And just like a kid brother, McHenry has remained loyal as scandals threaten the crowd he has joined. He continues to lead cheers for Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, after his indictment on money-laundering charges, and for Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser caught up in an investigation into the leak of a CIA agent’s identity.

McHenry echoes DeLay, calling Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle “a partisan hack” and accusing the House Democrats’ campaign operation of playing a role in the indictment.

“It’s a major part of their agenda,” McHenry said. “It’s so clear that this is a major desire for (Democratic Reps.) Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel and the leftist organizations to make political hay out of this.”

Democrats say McHenry’s inside-the-Beltway posturing comes at the expense of his constituents.

“I think the 10th District (of North Carolina) sent him to Washington to work for them, not Tom DeLay or Karl Rove,” said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

McHenry has demonstrated some independence. Textile and furniture manufacturing are a big part of the economy in his district, and he bucked party leaders by upholding a campaign promise to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

In March, he was among a small number of conservatives who threatened to vote against the 2006 budget resolution unless it included new rules to restrain spending.

“I got a lot of pressure over a period of about two weeks, and I held my ground,” McHenry said. “I was committed to a cause.”

He has eagerly sought the role of an attack dog against Democrats, although he has sometimes come off as more like a puppy nipping at their heels. But GOP leaders chose him over more senior members to debate Democrats twice his age on national television.

According to fellow freshman Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., McHenry is right where he wants to be.

“He enjoys a good debate and being at the center of the action,” she said.

Rep. Sue Myrick, a friend and fellow North Carolina Republican, said McHenry has “got innate political sense, simply because he’s been in politics since he was knee-high.”

McHenry first ran for public office as a 22-year-old candidate for the North Carolina legislature. He lost to the father of a high school classmate.

He worked as a national youth coordinator for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, and after cultivating top Republicans and conservative leaders in Washington for two years, returned to western North Carolina to win a seat in the state legislature. He was serving his first term when veteran Republican Rep. Cass Ballenger decided not to seek re-election.

“I got into the race and people literally laughed,” McHenry said. “They thought I had no chance of winning.”

Largely outspent by his opponents in the primaries, McHenry credits his win to an army of college-age Republicans knocking on 70,000 doors and making more than 100,000 campaign calls.

When he won the primary by 85 votes, he promptly received $10,000 each from the political action committees operated by Hastert, DeLay and another Republican leader, Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. He won in November with 63 percent of the vote against Democratic social worker Anne Fischer.

McHenry sits on the Budget, Government Reform and Financial Services committees. The House Republican campaign operation placed him on its executive committee, and he is a member of the House Republican Study Committee, a group of 100 of the most conservative House members.

“I thought it would take years for a new member to become a player,” McHenry said. “It’s better than I expected.”


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© 2005 The Associated Press