She's built her popularity on an ability to rally the disaffected right. Critics say she has a thin legislative resume. But she has left her mark.
WASHINGTON - Now in her third term in Congress, Rep. Michele Bachmann has never wielded a committee gavel, held a party leadership position or had a bill signed into law.
But as she vies to be the first House member elected president since James Garfield in 1880, the Minnesota Republican brandishes an outsized influence rooted in her growing popularity among social conservatives in the Tea Party movement.
More activist than legislator, Bachmann will have to live down a long list of missed votes and a short list of legislative accomplishments. But few members of Congress can match her crowd appeal and high-decibel media savvy.
While detractors say she lacks a substantive record, her backers credit her with rallying the disaffected GOP base, moving the needle to the right in congressional debates on taxes, the national debt and her signature issue, health care.
Bachmann now appears to have vaulted to the top tier of the 2012 GOP field by dint of a strong personality and unabashed conservatism, rather than by trading on the daily grind of Washington lawmaking. "She has an ability to pick up an issue, put it on a national marquee, and make it an agenda item," said U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, one of 52 House Republicans who joined her Tea Party Caucus last year. "That kind of thing makes a big difference."
King says Bachmann helped galvanize opposition to President Obama's health care overhaul, using television appearances and a network of Tea Party groups to jam the hallways of Congress in a well-publicized 2009 "House Call" rally.
Raising questions about abortion funds and "death panels," Bachmann and her allies managed to slow passage of the Affordable Care Act, complicating life for centrist Democrats such as Iron Range congressman Jim Oberstar, who later lost his seat.
"She scared a lot of Blue Dogs into being more conservative," said Texas Republican Louie Gohmert, referring to socially conservative Democrats. "That helped move the debate."
Left her own mark
Her critics don't dispute that Bachmann has left her mark in Congress.
"Her ability to help shape a public narrative or put pressure on her own leaders, to get a lot of attention, to focus on something and make it a bigger issue or amplify on it, that's there," said Norman Ornstein, an influential Congress watcher at the American Enterprise Institute.
Bachmann was first to file a bill to repeal the new health care law. The version eventually passed by the Republican-led House was sponsored by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Bachmann has authored 46 bills and resolutions since coming to the House in 2007. Most died in committee; none became law. Three of her resolutions passed in the House but not in the Senate. One recognized Minnesota's 150th anniversary; another honored service to foster children.
On Sunday, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has trailed Bachmann in the polls and fundraising, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that she has a "nonexistent" record of accomplishment, while he has executive experience and has achieved results under challenging circumstances.
In response, Bachmann pointed to her record as a "leading voice fighting against Obamacare" and a host of White House economic initiatives, including the stimulus package.
"People can count on me as a fighter," she said. "I am proud of my record of fighting with resolve, and without apology, for our free markets, for sane fiscal policies, and in opposition to the advancement of the big government left."
Her office has argued that her legislative record is typical of a Republican who was sworn in just as a new Democratic majority took control under then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"Do a search of the 13-member Republican freshman class that came to Congress at the same time," said Bachmann spokesman Doug Sachtleben. "You will find that through four years [of the Democratic majority] members of that group, on average, had 4.5 resolutions pass the House, and of the whole group, only one was signed into law, and that was a post office."
'Good ol' boys club'
If Bachmann's bills haven't gone far in Congress, they have not wanted for attention.
Most famous was her "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act," which would rescind energy efficiency standards that could phase out traditional incandescent bulbs. Extolled by her as a blow for personal freedom, Bachmann's bill has been widely panned by environmentalists.
Bachmann's penchant for the limelight has garnered skeptics in both parties. Her move to file a separate reconstruction bill after the 2007 collapse of the 35W Bridge in Minneapolis alienated Minnesota Democrats who had already rallied around legislation introduced by Oberstar.
In January, U.S. House GOP leaders were privately aghast when she gave a separate televised Tea Party response to President Obama's State of the Union address, eclipsing the official Republican rebuttal by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
The incident coincided with the collective cold shoulder Bachmann received when she bid for a leadership post in the House Republican Conference. It was then that she started talking about joining the 2012 presidential race, where she could revel in her outsider status.
"I'm not part of the good ol' boys club," she said in a recent radio interview. "But that's something I'm proud of."
DFL opponents have tried to question her bona fides as a fiscal hawk by pointing to her family farm subsidies and the home district transportation projects she backed before taking a pledge against spending earmarks.
She has also been attacked for frequent out-of-state trips, TV appearances and missed votes. According to congressional records, Bachmann missed 183 roll call votes through June, a 4.56 missed percentage rate. The average is 3.3 percent.
But the criticism, including regular coverage of what she calls "some facts that I've gotten wrong," has failed to take hold with her base of ardent supporters.
"For the people who support her, these things are irrelevant," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, her ideological opposite.
Despite the partisan divisions, the book on Bachmann's record in Congress could have a bipartisan ending. As a vocal champion of a new Stillwater bridge over the St. Croix River, Bachmann made common cause with Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and others to break an impasse that has blocked the bridge for decades.
Her campaign recently distributed a National Journal article on her bridge legislation.
"I think it's important for people to know that I'm not highly partisan and that I can work with other people," Bachmann said.
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.