When U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton takes office Monday, he will be a member of the most powerful freshman class in Congress in recent history.
Tipton was among 63 Republican freshmen who swept to victory in November, promising to cut spending and change Washington for good. Their victories put Republicans back in charge of the House of Representatives after four years of Democratic control.
His class is a very big class. It will be well-regarded and well-positioned to have some real power in the way we put legislation and appropriations together in the country. Theres no question about it, said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, a member of the last majority maker class in 2006.
Yet respect in Washington could create a dilemma back at home.
Like many new Republicans, Tipton got elected by crusading against federal spending. Now that he is in Congress, local governments and agencies will be looking to him for funding.
Two early tests are in store.
First, Congress never passed a budget in 2010. Instead, it passed a temporary measure to keep the government funded through March. That vote sets up a showdown in a matter of weeks.
Second, Congress will have to vote this spring to raise the limit on the federal debt. If lawmakers dont raise the debt ceiling, federal government could shut down perhaps causing national parks to close their gates and Social Security checks to not be mailed.
A vote to increase the debt would anger tea party activists who backed Tipton, said Wendy Cox, an organizer of the Four Corners Liberty Restoration Group in Bayfield.
Thats a tough one. Passing the debt limit, youre just giving the government permission to spend, spend, spend. And if you dont, youre going to be shutting down a good portion of it, Cox said.
She prefers a government shutdown to higher debt, and she urged Tipton to not heed the scare tactics of people warning about a shutdown.
Incumbent Republicans know the debt vote will be a major test of the GOPs new House majority against President Barack Obama.
Its going to be a huge showdown. Congressional leadership is going to have to show something for it, said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora.
A more immediate issue for Tipton will be local spending. Tipton beat Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, in part by railing against federal spending and earmarks.
Salazar was never shy about seeking funding for his district. The Democrat used earmarks to get funding for the Animas-La Plata Project and Mesa Verde National Parks new visitor center.
The earmark process lets members of Congress add funding for their local districts to spending bills. The projects usually arent subject to hearings or separate votes.
Tipton promised not to ask for earmarks.
Salazars name is on 24 earmarks in the spending bill that Congress left on the table last week. Some of the earmarks Salazar requested include:
b $800,000 for housing on the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation.
b $320,000 for a violence- prevention campaign in Southwest Colorado.
b $250,000 for equipment at the Southwest Colorado Mental Health Center clinic in Cortez.
b $1.3 million for repair of Jackson Gulch Reservoir north of Mancos.
The Jackson Gulch project is supposed to be in the presidents budget for 2012, said Gary Kennedy, superintendent of the Mancos Water District. But Kennedy is anxious to finish a project that has been in the works since 2004 and is well under-budget so far.
Now, we just shoved our project back another year, Kennedy said.
He has met with Tipton, and they are looking for ways to make sure the reservoir is finished.
Tipton cited Jackson Gulch Reservoir, Mesa Verde and Fort Lewis College as local projects and institutions worth fighting for. But he will have to figure out how to help them without using earmarks.
Hes not alone in opposing earmarks. The incoming speaker of the House, John Boehner, pledged the GOP to a one-year ban on earmarks.
I think the era of big bills with lots of earmarks is over, starting in January, Coffman said.
Coffman is finishing his first term in Congress. He served previously as a state legislator, state treasurer and secretary of state. Life in Congress is very different, Coffman said.
Tipton is a bigger fish now, but hes also in a much bigger pond. Hes one of 435 U.S. representatives, instead of one of 65 state representatives.
Even so, Tipton can expect more influence than he had in the state House.
During his two years in Denver, Republicans were in the minority in the House and Senate, leaving control of the agenda in the hands of Gov. Bill Ritter and his fellow Democrats.
But in 2011, Republicans will hold a 242-193 majority in the U.S. House. That gives them the ability to control the calendar of the lower chamber, Coffman said.
The GOP leadership has promised that it will take a more deliberate approach with bills, allowing for more committee hearings and amendments from Democrats, Coffman said.
But Republicans are not all-powerful. Democrats still control the Senate, and Obama can veto bills. The dynamic makes it easier to block legislation and harder to pass something new.
Split control of Congress will make it all but impossible to achieve one of Tiptons goals, the repeal of the Obamacare health-insurance bill passed in 2010.
Tipton said he wants to run bills that adopt some of the Colorado Legislatures good-government policies, including limiting bills to one subject. The change would prohibit Congress from tacking on pet projects to the bill that funds the armed forces.
We dont need to put on an addition to establish a tea-set museum, Tipton said.
Another bill would require a Regulatory Impact Statement of the effects of new laws on business.
Whatever part Tipton plays in Washington, Democrats will be gunning for him in 2012. They are especially ready to pounce on his campaign promise to cut spending.
The problem with telling voters something unrealistic to get elected is you might get elected, said state House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo.
Pace is a Salazar ally and a possible candidate to oppose Tipton in 2012, although Pace says he is focusing on his job in the state House. Pace thinks voters will soon appreciate what Salazar did for the district with projects like Animas-La Plata and the Mesa Verde visitor center.
I dont expect (Tipton) to be able to perform like that, especially with his stated antithesis for government. Its going to be very hard for him to walk that tightrope, Pace said.
jhanel@durango herald.com. Cortez Journal staff writer Reid Wright contributed to this story.