WASHINGTON - This was where most freshmen congressmen dream of being: live on C-SPAN, at the center of a major legislative debate, within just a few votes of persuading their peers to approve their idea.
Except in this particular debate on Dec. 11, Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, not only was bucking his party leadership in the House of Representatives, but was a step away from passing an amendment that would have gutted the regulatory agency at the center of President Obama's consumer financial oversight package.
"It was a strange debate," Minnick admitted. "I actually had a majority, before the White House and leadership put on a full-court press. They're quite good at that at the last moment."
Minnick's amendment failed 208-223, but for a freshman congressman, just getting it heard was an achievement, if not a stunning display of independence.
"Obviously we had a disagreement on this one," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the chairman of the Financial Services Committee and the chief House champion of the president's consumer-friendly legislation. "A lot of people didn't want to put that to a vote. He insisted, and was very successful. He's very respected by the members, including some who disagree with him, and I think that's very important."
For Minnick, though, the question is whether this independence will resonate with the conservative voters in Idaho's first district, which takes in the west part of Boise and runs from the southern border with Nevada all the way to the northern border with Canada. Minnick in 2008 wrested the congressional district from one-term Republican Rep. Bill Sali.
He's fully aware of the target the national Republican Party has put on his back - Minnick makes nearly every list of most-threatened House Democrats and is on a list of seats the GOP hopes to retake. Two Republicans, Vaughn Ward and Raul Labrador, have stepped into the race, and Ward has the backing of the national GOP. Sali also is said to be considering another bid.
"I try to do what's consistent with my views and represent - where I can - the views of the state," Minnick said. "My test is, 'What's good for Idaho; what's good for my kids and grandkids?' And I try to look at it issue-by-issue. I figure if most of those decisions are right, on the merits, the election will take care of itself." In his first year of office, Minnick's independent streak has earned him the dubious honor of being the House Democrat least likely to vote with his party leadership. His percent record of voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is lower even than the 84 percent rate of Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama, who switched to the Republican Party on Dec. 22.
Minnick voted against the economic stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade energy legislation and the health care bill - all top goals of the Democratic leadership and the White House.
Minnick ultimately backed the federal watchdog agency the president is seeking to oversee home loans and other consumer credit products because he helped write portions of it in the Financial Services Committee. His own failed amendment would have done away with the new agency and put more oversight in the hands of existing regulators.
"If they (bills) don't pass the smell test of being cost-effective from the standpoint of the taxpayer, I'm inclined to vote against them with the hope that (proponents) will come back with a more cost-effective solution," he said.
Many of the "no" votes he cast were tough decisions, Minnick said, especially the vote he faced on health care. He hasn't decided how he'll vote on the health care bill once it returns to the House, but he has concerns about the cost of the legislation.
"I want to increase access; I want to reduce cost," he said. "I don't want to create another unfunded government entitlement program that's going to dig this debt hole we're in even deeper."
But Minnick also said he thinks it might begin to be easier for him to say "yes" next year. Widespread concerns are growing in both parties about the growing national debt and the price tag for health care, the economic stimulus and the bank bailouts. When he first took office, Minnick said he "felt like a lone wolf talking about these issues."
"Now, it is in vogue," he said. "And I think it's because the public has gotten increasingly concerned about the issue of paying for what we spend, and growing indebtedness."
So have all his "no" votes put him at odds with party leadership? Not exactly, although they have meant some tough conversations with House leaders, including Pelosi.
The day before the energy bill came up for a vote, Pelosi called Minnick into her office, along with about a half-dozen other defiant Democrats whose votes she didn't yet have.
"She was trying to indicate it would be in the interest of farmers and rural people who were dependent on hydroelectric, as we are in our state," Minnick said. "She made the best case she could. And then she went around the room and said, 'Is there anything specific that you need and that I could do that would be helpful to you in your district?'"
When she got to Minnick, he told her "no." Minnick said that while he believes the nation needs to address global warming, he told Pelosi he'd concluded that he didn't think the cap-and-trade concept would successfully curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
"That conversation in no way affected professional relationships," Minnick said. "She was doing business. She treated me no differently - no better, no worse - than the congressmen who said yes. And I admire that about the speaker. She's the consummate professional."
Voters just might like his independence, said Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Illinois, who successfully pushed her own amendment to the consumer finance bill, but fought Minnick's amendment.
"He's come to Congress, hit the ground running, used his tremendous knowledge and expertise to bring substantive content to the legislation we've done, and I think he'll have something to be proud of, in that regard," she said. "That independence and deliberative approach to legislation is always important, and I think that will be helpful."