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WASHINGTON - It was a rookie mistake.
After running an insurgent congressional campaign against President Obama's health care overhaul, freshman Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack voted in last week's budget marathon against a GOP amendment to strip funding from the program.
"I thought I hit yes," Cravaack later explained, "But I guess I hit no."
Though he later corrected the mistake, Cravaack has not taken back another half-dozen votes that departed from his freshman class of fiscal hawks, a group elected in a GOP landslide fueled by Tea Party fervor.
Cravaack's long-shot victory over DFL veteran Jim Oberstar was seen as the high-water mark of the Tea Party tide that swung control of the House back to Republicans. But far from playing the Tea Party rebel, Cravaack has aligned himself as a rank-and-file Republican willing to break from the 87-member pack of freshman conservatives.
In his first six weeks in office, Cravaack has voted for federal prevailing wage laws and against cuts to low-income heating assistance. He's backed Pentagon spending on NASCAR sponsorships. A retired Navy captain, he sided with Republican leaders who want to fund a second, $450 million engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter, a program that was shot down as duplicative by a coalition of House Democrats and Republicans.
Finally, with the government headed for a potential shutdown next week, Cravaack voted against across-the-board cuts to non-defense government spending, a measure that would have saved the treasury $22 billion. Cravaack said he was holding out for a more targeted approach to deficit reduction.
"I compare it to the military," he said. "We did surgical strikes with laser-guided weapons instead of across-the-board. It was harder work ... but we hit the areas we wanted to hit."
Seen as a fresh-faced conservative voice in Congress, Cravaack has distanced himself from the House Tea Party Caucus founded by Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, calling himself "a conservative that represents the 8th District of Minnesota."
He also remains the only Minnesota Republican in Congress to steer clear of the Republican Study Committee, a large conservative caucus that has challenged GOP leaders to cut deeper and wider in the coming budget battle with the Obama administration.
Rarely does a newcomer to Congress come into such clear focus in the span of four days. But that's how it went last week for Cravaack, a political outsider until his surprise victory in November.
If Cravaack arrived with a blank slate, it was full by the early morning hours of last Saturday, when he emerged bleary-eyed from a four-day legislative marathon entailing 104 votes on pieces of a $1.2 trillion bill producing $61 billion in spending cuts.
"I think if I got nine hours of sleep in those three or four days, I'd have been lucky," he said.
It was in one flurry of quick votes on Friday that Cravaack realized he had mistakenly supported a measure funding the health program Republicans call Obamacare. Only two Republicans did so.
"I bolted toward the well to change my vote, and before I could get there the hammer went down and the lights [on the voting board] went out," he recalled. The "well" is the area in front of the rostrum.
But Cravaack made no apologies for other budget votes that balanced fiscal discipline against other priorities.
The one that got the most attention was an amendment by Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum that would have cut tens of millions of dollars for military NASCAR sponsorships. While Tea Party figures like Bachmann supported McCollum's plan, Cravaack and most other Republicans did not, calling the sponsorships a valuable recruiting tool.
Cravaack also cast a vote for the second F-35 fighter engine, an item that was opposed by the Pentagon and sharply divided Republicans. Critics saw the engine as an earmark for House Speaker John Boehner's home state of Ohio. Cravaack argued that a second engine could save money. "When you have a sole-source provider," he said, "that's when you get the $500 bolt and the $900 toilet seat." But in a victory for the Tea Party activists -- and most Democrats -- the engine was cut by a vote of 233-198.
Backing the Patriot Act
The Tea Party bloc was less successful in blocking the extension of Patriot Act provisions, such as roving wiretaps. Cravaack was not among the critics.
"He has yet to prove himself as a Tea Party candidate," said George Burton, an electrical contractor from Brainerd who ran for Congress against Cravaack and Oberstar last fall as a Constitutional Party candidate. "Voting to renew the Patriot Act is a clue that should not be overlooked."
Democrats eyeing a potentially vulnerable freshman have also taken their shots. "Taking marching orders from Speaker Boehner comes at a price, and Representative Chip Cravaack is asking Minnesota to pay the cost," said Haley Morris of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some observers see Cravaack navigating the intricacies of fiscal discipline and hewing to an independent streak in northern Minnesota, long a pro-union enclave dominated by the DFL.
"He already has the support of those who identify with the Tea Party in his district, and of Republicans more generally," said University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson.
But to win reelection, said DuluthPolitics.com blogger John Rathe, Cravaack "understands he needs to keep a certain percentage" of voters in the northern counties that he lost to Oberstar.
Said Cravaack: "I'm getting hit from the right and the left, so I must be doing something right."
Kevin Diaz and Jeremy Herb are correspondents in the Star Tribune Washington bureau.