Ellmers rides the rough waves impressing party and constituents

Washington correspondentJuly 3, 2011 

— WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers sits on a couch in her Capitol Hill office, her bare foot propped on a coffee table, methodically peeling the paper off Band-Aids and wrapping them around four injured toes.

She is headed down to the floor of the House of Representatives for a series of votes, but traipsing marble and tile floors in high heels has wreaked havoc on her feet.

"I've had to have surgery on my toes," she says, laughing. "But I'm not giving up my heels."

In her first six months in Congress, Ellmers is confronting what all freshman lawmakers ask themselves: what she'll give up - and what she won't - while navigating the legislative process and sticking to her principles.

"I thought like many did, that one of the reasons I'd never consider running for office is if you do that, you become part of the problem," said Ellmers, 47, a registered nurse and conservative Republican from the small town of Dunn. "But you have to be careful. You have to be on guard."

The compromises have come up repeatedly, most prominently on a series of stopgap spending bills that Ellmers supported despite opposition from her tea party base. Another tough decision looms in the controversial vote on raising the nation's debt ceiling, which President Barack Obama insists must be done this month.

Ellmers came to Congress riding the message that politicians here are out of touch with everyday Americans. Now that she's inside the Beltway, she has learned how complicated legislating can be.

"It appears we're not working very hard. But in all honesty we are working very hard, and that was something that even I back home didn't realize," she said.

Learning to compromise

Her first big compromise votes were on a series of continuing resolutions earlier in the year, the stopgap spending bills passed to stave off government shutdowns. Many Republican freshmen voted no, backing up their demands that their party's leaders cut $100 billion.

Each time, Ellmers voted yes.

"The CR vote I took may have put some folks who are tea party-connected at odds with me," Ellmers said.

Randy Dye, a former trauma nurse and conservative activist from Pittsboro in Ellmers' 2nd District, is among those disappointed in her.

"I think she's just another Republican RINO," said Dye, who writes a political blog, referring to the nickname "Republican in name only." "As far as what she's done so far, I still think we should have let the government shut down."

Ellmers said House Speaker John Boehner had told the GOP members that they would find cuts, but that the party needed to pass the stopgap measures. She agreed, pointing out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, needed to keep running to help 2nd District residents hit by a swath of tornadoes in April.

"I wish people could see what I see," Ellmers said. "They would have a much more favorable view of what goes on here."

Work with the leadership

In just a few short months, Boehner and the rest of the leadership team have tapped Ellmers repeatedly to help carry their message.

She is a public face of YouCut, a GOP online initiative started by Majority Leader Eric Cantor that allows voters to cast ballots for the federal program they want to cut. She sponsored the first related bill, which would eliminate a United Nations population control program. It remains in committee.

"I see eye-to-eye with them (the GOP leadership) on many issues," Ellmers said. "I'm on board with everything we've done."

She appeared with GOP leaders at a news conference in June to talk about the economy. On June 25, she gave the official Republican response to President Barack Obama's radio address. Standing in the House Small Business Committee room for the video response, Ellmers described Republicans' plan to turn to business owners for ideas on cutting regulations.

"That speaks volumes, I think, about how she is held in high regard," said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Banner Elk Republican who has become one of Ellmers' mentors.

'She fits in nicely'

Foxx advised Ellmers before the latter decided to run, offering a network of contacts. Theirs is the kind of relationship more Republican women are developing in the House.

"The face is changing, isn't it?" said political scientist Andrew Taylor of N.C. State University. "There's a sense some of the new energy (in the GOP) is coming from younger Republicans, and many of them are women. In that sense she fits in nicely."

Ellmers also fits into the puzzle that Boehner and Cantor must piece together in order to govern while listening to freshman points of view, he said.

"So this creates a great many constraints on the way individuals behave, and it may be she's getting a sense of those now," Taylor said.

Ellmers has been a fixture on conservative media, speaking often with national and state radio shows. Recently, she appeared on Lou Dobbs' show on Fox Business Network to talk about her questioning of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during a Small Business Committee hearing about the national debt.

She had disputed Geithner's position that higher tax revenues are needed to help offset the nation's debt. "You are wrong," Ellmers told him.

Taylor said that sort of attention helps Ellmers.

"Obviously it doesn't hurt amongst your party rank-and-file activists if you're standing up to one of the most powerful members of the Obama administration," Taylor said.

Ellmers returns home most weekends to be with her husband and teenage son. She has appeared at several GOP clubs and business forums in the 2nd District, and is a frequent guest on local radio. Recently, she was at a Chamber of Commerce forum in Rocky Mount.

In the audience was Dan Conley of Rocky Mount, a friend of Al Lytton, Ellmers' campaign manager and now chief of staff. Conley said that, though he is not very political, he supports Ellmers and her work in Washington. "She has the same theology that a lot of us have," Conley said.

Hoping to stay

Ellmers is already thinking about re-election. She has hosted fundraisers and made phone calls, helping both herself and colleagues. She'd like to come back for another term, she said. And for more after that, as long as the voters will have her.

The proposed 2nd Congressional District unveiled Friday looks to be more solidly Republican, but Democrats already are targeting her for 2012, airing radio ads and organizing protests at her appearances.

Democrats point to votes in which she opposed cutting tax subsidies for oil companies, for example, and also her support of the Republican budget that would end the current structure for Medicare.

"The priorities that she has set don't reflect the priorities or values of the voters of the district," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington.

Recently, about 15 people protested before her speech in Rocky Mount, holding signs decrying proposed GOP cuts to Medicare.

"These guys in Congress make a ton of money. Why don't they start cutting from the top?" asked Fran Lee of Rocky Mount.

Ellmers stands by her support of the GOP budget, which would change Medicare into a voucher system for people now 54 and younger.

"It's a plan for the future," Ellmers said. "The Democrats don't have an alternative plan."

The next big issue will be on the debt ceiling. Congress must agree in the next month to raise it or the United States will default on its loans beginning Aug. 2.

Many from the tea party want a firm "no" vote. Ellmers, though, sees potential for a way to vote "yes" - as long as it comes with the promise of cuts.

"I'm not committing myself or locking myself in to a benchmark," she said. "It has to be significant enough that it overrides the fact that we're adding to the credit limit."

Staff writer Eden Stiffman contributed.

bbarrett@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0012

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service