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Analysis: Republican "Young Guns" make history, draw fire

Cantor walks from the House chamber after voting on debt ceiling legislation at the Capitol in Washington
Cantor walks from the House chamber after voting on debt ceiling legislation at the Capitol in Washington

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A year after declaring themselves "Young Guns" ready to clean up Washington, these budget-slashing Republicans are drawing more jeers than cheers -- and raising Democrats' hopes for next year's election.

Having rejected compromise and threatened government default, they and other Republicans have upset voters, who polls show are increasingly anxious about the economy and disgruntled with both political parties. Last month, Congress' approval rating slumped to its lowest level ever -- about 12 percent.

"Right now, voters hate everyone," said Steve Stivers, one of 62 first-term "Young Gun" Republicans in the House of Representatives. "People are frustrated. But I feel we are on the right track."

To be sure, Stivers and his colleagues have come a long way since three Republican Party leaders recruited them to run for office and released a book last September titled "Young Guns: A New Generation of Conservative Leaders."

Tapping into anti-Washington ire fanned by the Tea Party movement, they preached fiscal discipline and "common sense for the common good" in last year's election to help Republicans win the House from President Barack Obama's Democrats.

But since taking power in January, the "Young Guns" -- led by House Republican Leader Eric Cantor, House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- have produced historic yet troubling results.

Determined to tame record U.S. debt, they kept their vow to slash government spending, reversing years of increases by both Republican and Democratic-led Congresses and presidents.

Yet in doing so, the "Young Guns" and other Republicans pushed the government to the brink of a shutdown earlier this year and a narrowly averted debt default last month.

This angered voters and unnerved Wall Street, leading to the first-ever downgrade of the United States' AAA credit rating by Standard & Poor's.

Republicans bucked public opinion by refusing to compromise and raise taxes on the wealthy as part of deficit reduction.

"They were very effective in Washington. But outside Washington they contributed to a dramatic decline in confidence in their institution," said Paul Light, a political science professor at New York University.

Republicans have also drawn complaints that they are focusing too much on shrinking government at the expense of creating jobs, a pressing concern among voters with the U.S. unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent.

Despite the Republicans' success in winning spending cuts, Tea Party supporters are still not happy. They wanted deeper cuts and oppose any hike in the U.S. debt limit, which caps the amount Washington can borrow to pay its bills.

"YOUNG GUNS" HAVE AGED

"We got ripped off," said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the movement's biggest groups.

A Pew Research Poll last month showed the Republican Party's favorable rating at 34 percent, compared with 43 percent for the Democratic Party.

Those numbers have fueled Democrats' hopes of making gains in the House in next year's election when they will be scrambling to retain control of the Senate and the White House.

"While they might have started with great hype, the 'Young Guns' leadership has misfired over and over again," said Jesse Ferguson of the Democratic congressional campaign committee.

As things stand, Democrats are expected to pick up some House seats in 2012, but not the 24 needed to win back control of the 435-member chamber. House seats are up for election every two years.

Polls suggest a number of first-term Republicans are vulnerable because they hail from traditionally Democratic districts. Cantor, Ryan and McCarthy are seen as holding safe Republican seats.

"The 'Young Guns' look a lot older now, with good reason," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "They had a tough year."

Cantor had perhaps the toughest. He got deep spending cuts without any tax hikes, but he also became the face of Republican intransigence and a Democratic punching bag.

As the House Republicans' chief vote counter, McCarthy drew fire for failing to muster needed support on some key measures, including one plan by House Speaker John Boehner to raise the debt-limit in July.

Another lightning rod for voter unhappiness with the "Young Guns'" was their uncompromising quest for deep spending cuts as outlined in Ryan's 2012 budget plan, which proposed privatizing Medicare, a popular healthcare program for the elderly.

That was a key reason the Republicans lost a special election for a House seat in New York.

Still, Ryan gained the admiration of plenty of conservatives, including some who urged him to seek the Republican presidential nomination. He declined.

Bill Frenzel, a former Republican congressman who is now at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, hopes the "Young Guns" learn the art of political compromise

"It takes each one a little time to figure out how to do it," Frenzel said. "There's a learning curve."

(Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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