In first weeks, Cravaack balances budget cuts with pro-union votesby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
Washington — Since Chip Cravaack won a surprise victory over the long-time Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar last fall, he's been settling into his new job representing Minnesota's 8th Congressional District.
In Rep. Cravaack's first speech on the floor of the House -- delivered in the middle of the night during the debate on the budget bill -- he laid out his priorities as a small government fiscal conservative.
"The people of northeast Minnesota sent me, like many of my freshman colleagues, to Washington because they are tired of unaccountable government wasting their hard earned dollars and borrowing it against their children's future," he said.
Cravaack has already won his first battle, successfully backing a measure to cut more than $40 million of annual funding for the U.S. Institute for Peace, a think tank that focuses on conflict resolution.
But unlike some of his more outspoken freshman colleagues, Cravaack made his argument in a way designed not to pick fights with Institute supporters.
"Make no mistake, I believe the Institute's goals are important and they are honorable; who among us does not wish for peace?" he said.
But Cravaack's first eight weeks in office have been far from peaceful. The Republican-controlled House voted over strenuous Democratic objections to cut more than $60 billion of federal spending right away.
Republicans describe the bill as a first step in taming the nation's trillion-dollar deficits. The cuts weren't as deep as many freshman Republicans had demanded, but Cravaack split with some of his more conservative colleagues and voted against an amendment that would cut even deeper.
"If you go back on top of the cuts we were already cutting, I think we were just getting too much into the bone," he said.
Showing his new constituents that he's more moderate than others in his party is key, said political science professor Garrick Pervical at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
"Here is a more conservative new member of Congress who is representing a historically Democratic district, Democratic stronghold really," he said.
Another way Cravaack is burnishing his credentials with voters is by taking pro-union votes in a district with a heavy union presence.
He bucked a large part of his party by voting against an amendment that would have abolished the National Labor Relations Board, which mediates disputes between labor and management. Cravaack said his past career as an airline pilot helped shape his views on labor issues.
"I've been in a union for a number of years and I still consider myself a union member," he said. "I've been on strike, I've walked picket lines and there is a definite place for labor unions in this country."
UMD's Garrick Percival said Cravaack will have to show that kind of independence from the House Republican leadership if he wants to get re-elected. It's likely that Republican leaders will let Cravaack break from the party line if and when he has to, he said.
"They know and I think he knows that they have a lot of work ahead of them and this is certainly not a safe seat," Percival said.
Cravaack appears to face a difficult balancing act between his traditionally Democratic-leaning district, House leadership, and many of the new Republican House members who lean toward the tea party movement.
He got caught in the middle during the budget debate when he voted with House Speaker John Boehner to protect spending for a military fighter jet engine in Boehner's home state of Ohio.
The Pentagon and President Obama opposed the spending, and tea party Republicans joined Democrats on the House floor to leave both Boehner and Cravaack on the losing side of that budget cutting vote.
- Morning Edition, 02/28/2011, 8:25 a.m.