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Rep. Tim Walz Vows A Hard Vote On The Debt Ceiling


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Many lawmakers, Republican or Democrat, might sooner take a salary cut than vote to raise the debt ceiling. But Tim Walz is not one of them. He's a third-term Democratic congressman from southern Minnesota, and the only member of Congress who has returned to the Treasury every salary increase he's received. Walz is also making no bones about his desire to lift the limit on the national debt.

Congress returns to Washington next week to deal with difficult budget questions. This past week, NPR's David Welna caught up with Walz at the Rotary Club meeting in Mankato, Minnesota.

DAVID WELNA: It's first things first at the Mankato Rotary Club's midday meeting. A couple of dozen members at the buffet pile some lunch on their plates.

Mr. DOUG JOHNSON: Ham and baked potatoes and beans and salad.

WELNA: That's Doug Johnson, a retired insurance agent and registered Republican. He's never voted for Tim Walz, the Democrat who won a third term in November with barely 49 percent of the vote. Still, Johnson's willing to lend an ear to Walz, the luncheon's featured speaker.

Mr. JOHNSON: Be interested in how he's cooperating with the Republicans in Washington or not.

WELNA: Political independent Nick Meyer, who is president of a local credit union, has voted for Walz. He's come with a list of concerns.

Mr. NICK MEYER: Number one probably would be the amount of debt we've accumulated, and how we have to raise the federal ceiling just to keep the government running.

Unidentified Man: Without any further ado, here's Congressman Tim Walz.

(Soundbite of applause)

WELNA: For Walz, it's a local hero's welcome. This burly congressman went from local high school coach and geography teacher - as well as command sergeant major in the National Guard - to ousting a six-term Republican in a swing district that went for President Bush in 2004 and President Obama four years later.

Representative TIM WALZ (Democrat, Minnesota): It's great to be here. I said this room truly does represent service and community. I have former students. I have colleagues. I have my children's pediatricians.

WELNA: Also in the crowd, two of the top campaign contributors to Walz's most recent GOP opponent. This doesn't seem to faze Walz. He says it's always best to make sure constituents know exactly where you stand, including on the upcoming vote to raise the debt limit.

Rep. WALZ: I want to be absolutely clear on this. Not voting and not lifting the debt ceiling would have catastrophic economic proportions.

WELNA: Voting to raise the debt limit may not be popular, Walz adds, but it's the responsible thing to do.

Rep. WALZ: I would argue that in this climate, at this time, coming up against that edge, every member who says they're fiscally responsible and votes against that has probably cast the most fiscally irresponsible vote that this country has passed, ever.

WELNA: After the luncheon, Republican-leaning independent Walter Johnson says he'd consider voting for Walz for the first time next year. But the retired 86-year-old still differs with Walz on the debt ceiling.

Mr. WALTER JOHNSON: I'm convinced that we should not raise the debt ceiling. Let the executive branch figure out how to spend this money because Congress evidently can't do it.

WELNA: But the congressman said that he thought that that could be catastrophic.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes. Mm-hmm. Well, who knows? I've got my fingers crossed. What we're doing is catastrophic.

WELNA: At his campaign headquarters in downtown Mankato, Walz says he's keenly aware the GOP House Campaign Committee considers him one of the 14 most vulnerable Democrats in next year's election.

Rep. WALZ: And then my job is to try and make that case, voters make the case that well, you know, we vote for this guy, but there are a significant number that don't and I still represent them, and that's what I was kind of talking today is how do you strike that balance?

WELNA: Centrist Democrats like Walz will likely be needed to push through a hike in the debt limit. But Steven Schier, a congressional expert at nearby Carleton College, says Republicans will insist on major policy changes in spending cuts as well and any measure to raise that ceiling.

Professor STEVEN SCHIER (Political Science, Carleton College): So the real question then is, will Representative Walz agree to vote for such a debt limit extension? I think we really don't know.

WELNA: It could come down to how much ground this swing-district Democrat is willing to yield to GOP demands.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.