In Oklahoma, a Freshman Republican Makes the Case for Deep Spending Cuts
OKMULGEE, Okla. — Representative Josh Brecheen, a first-term Republican, begins each town hall meeting in his sprawling district here in eastern Oklahoma the same way: with a blistering, roughly half-hour broadside about the crisis posed by the nation’s debt and the lengths to which he is prepared to go to force deep spending cuts.
“For the last 40 years, we inherited prosperity from our parents and our grandparents, and we are borrowing — and I would say stealing — prosperity from our kids and our grandkids,” Mr. Brecheen told Oklahomans crowded into a local college’s student center on a recent Monday morning.
But, he argued, the coming debt-limit negotiations with the Biden administration would be a chance to right those decades of wrongs.
“A debt ceiling can be very useful; do not discount our leverage,” Mr. Brecheen said. “It’s going to be uncomfortable. But again, if we don’t turn the trajectory of this nation, we are going to leave our kids and our grandkids nothing but dependency and debt.”
The pitch by Mr. Brecheen, 43, a rancher and former state senator who swept to victory in November on an antidebt message, reflects the intensity of the Republican determination to use a coming confrontation over the federal debt — which is projected to exceed the government’s ability to finance it as early as June — to extract spending concessions from President Biden and Democrats.
But it is about more than just dollars and cents. To spend a day in his district with Mr. Brecheen is to witness firsthand how hard-right Republicans have intertwined their fight to slash federal spending with battles over cultural issues that animate the right-wing Republican base.
In their telling, the coming fiscal showdown is also about defunding a bureaucracy set on dictating liberal values around the country that demonize ordinary Americans.
“We’ve gotten the power of the purse,” Mr. Brecheen said of his party at another town hall in Claremore, one of four in a single day during his first break from Washington since being elected, “and we’ve got to use it for all it’s worth, to be able to turn around policy and turn around this woke and weaponized government that’s been pointed at the American people.”
Mr. Brecheen has warned for years about the nation’s rising debt. His first major move in Washington was to join 19 other Republicans in opposing Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s bid for his job in an ultimately successful effort to force the top Republican to embrace measures laying the foundation for deep budget cuts. He is also part of a right-wing group that has vowed to withhold crucial votes for a debt-limit increase until winning significant curbs in spending.
A frequent quoter of President Ronald Reagan and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mr. Brecheen is in many ways a traditional “small government” conservative — someone who rattles off the 18 powers of Congress enumerated in the Constitution as proof that the founders wanted a lean federal government.
But as he traveled around his district, he heard little from his constituents about fiscal matters. Instead, he fielded questions about coronavirus mandates; election integrity; the plight of defendants imprisoned for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack at the Capitol who are being held in Washington, D.C.; and security at the U.S. border with Mexico.
At all four events, where constituents packed into steamy halls, seemingly every attendee was aghast at a report in the Epoch Times, a newspaper that routinely traffics in right-wing misinformation, suggesting that President Biden was preparing to hand the World Health Organization authority over pandemic policies in the United States.
And at each town hall, constituents angrily asked how much longer the United States would continue to send money in support of Ukraine.
“Without telling you I’m never going to fund what’s going on in Ukraine,” Mr. Brecheen answered in Okmulgee, “let me just say it’s going to be a tooth-pulling exercise to get me to vote for funding for that.”
“How much did it cost for Joe Biden to fly over to Ukraine?” one man in Claremore asked.
“He’s a traitor,” a woman standing in the back shouted, beginning a tirade, as another man called out: “Make sure it’s a one-way ticket!”
So it is perhaps not surprising that Mr. Brecheen frames his message on spending cuts, at least in part, in the language of the aggrieved right. It is a tactic that has been adopted by Republicans at the highest levels to defend their position in the fiscal battles to come. And it is part of a broader shift in the party led by former President Donald J. Trump, who eschewed entitlement reform — one of the key tenets of fiscal conservatism — but leaned heavily into the cultural grievances of the Republican base.
With Mr. McCarthy vowing not to touch Social Security or Medicare as part of the drive to slash the federal budget, and with tax increases also off the table, Republicans have set their focus on cutting spending, including foreign aid, that they argue fuels an out-of-control bureaucracy advancing a liberal ideology.
Russ Vought, the president of the arch-conservative Center for Renewing America and a former budget director under the Trump administration, has put forward a budget plan focused on slashing what he calls “the spending that is the easiest to cut practically and morally because it is funding the bureaucracies arrayed against the public.” His budget would eliminate the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Pentagon, zero out foreign aid bolstering L.G.B.T.Q. activist communities in repressive nations, and slash $3.4 billion for migration and refugee assistance.
“That’s the debate that I want to have,” Mr. Vought said in an interview.
It is the kind of debate that might interest the voters who attended the events in Mr. Brecheen’s district, most of them more focused on complaints about the Biden administration than on spending.
Over the course of four events, only a few constituents raised their hands to engage on the issue of the national debt. One, who described herself as the lone Democrat in the room, asked Mr. Brecheen if he would support taxing the nation’s very richest citizens — “the billionaire, trillionaires,” she said — to help shore up Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Brecheen demurred, replying that he favored a flat tax and believed raising the Social Security eligibility age to account for rising life expectancy would be “reasonable.”
Another, a young man, urged other attendees to support Mr. Brecheen in a game of debt brinkmanship, even if it prompted their retirement savings plans to plummet in value and “all of your security interests are flashing red.”
“Those consequences are coming, and when they do come, it will hurt really bad,” he said, standing to speak in a large meeting room in the Bartlesville Community Center. “The temptation from the media and everyone around you will be to scream and scream, to beg for a quick fix, to make it stop. And the solution is the pain. The pain has to happen if we want real solutions.”
There was scattered applause.
Even with only two months in Congress under his belt, Mr. Brecheen is no stranger to political showdowns. After he was one of the 20 Republicans who refused to vote for Mr. McCarthy for speaker during his first week in Congress, the freshman congressman received furious calls and text messages from constituents who urged him to stop delaying “the people’s business.”
His decision to hold out his vote, which contributed to a four-day standoff and the longest floor fight for the speakership since 1859, was painful, he conceded. But it paid off, Mr. Brecheen told his constituents to applause, recounting how he had personally relayed to Mr. McCarthy that he would not support him for speaker unless he promised to set the conference on a path for deep spending cuts and away from huge spending bills.
It was a lesson, Mr. Brecheen suggested, that could be applied to the coming debt-ceiling negotiations.
“We’re headed off the fiscal cliff,” he said. “So just like the 20 demonstrated, you use leverage to get something that can then be a guardrail to change the trajectory. So the Republican conference, as a unified conference, needs to use their leverage to say, ‘We’re done with this liberal ideology that is wreaking havoc.’”
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