WASHINGTON—As the youngest of five children, Rep. Patrick McHenry learned that taking on his elders was the only way to get what he wanted.
"I had to grab for my food against my older brothers and sisters," the North Carolina Republican said, laughing. "It's a natural part of my personality and upbringing. Get in there and fight for what you believe in."
That strategy still defines McHenry, who at 31 is the youngest legislator in the 435-member House of Representatives but certainly not the most accommodating.
Now in his second term, the conservative McHenry has been unafraid to challenge the new Democratic leadership. He nips at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tries to outwit parliamentary expert Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and defends the fallen members of his own party, such as former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Not everyone likes his attack-dog style, but what landed him in the headlines recently was the indictment of a former campaign aide on voter-fraud charges. That's exacerbated McHenry's problems at home with a faction of his party that remains angry about how he got to Washington in the first place.
McHenry was still in his first term and the youngest member of the state House in Raleigh when he shocked even his closest associates by deciding to run for an open seat in Congress in 2004. He didn't win easily. He came in second in a four-way primary, then he defeated well-known Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman by about 85 votes in the Republican runoff.
McHenry's opponents didn't like the way he'd run his campaign, in part because he was housing a group of young aides who he said couldn't to afford to pay rent on what he was paying them.
One of them, Michael Aaron Lay, was indicted on voter-fraud charges last month for changing his registration to McHenry's home address, then starting law school at the University of Tennessee as soon as the primary was over.
McHenry's only comment on Lay has been a statement he released at the time of the indictment.
"Aaron is an ethical law student whom I know to be a good Christian and law-abiding citizen," he said. "It's unfortunate that political opponents chose to target this young man in order to attack me. In the end, the facts and the law are on the side of this decent, law-abiding student, and he will be found innocent of this baseless attack."
McHenry thinks he understands why his antagonists are so mad.
"I didn't wait in line," he said of his decision to run for Congress. "There's sometimes this notion in politics that whoever's waiting the longest for a certain office deserves it. I've never abided by that concept. Democracy works."
McHenry said his priority was remaining true to his core conservative values while doing what was right for his district.
He's a reliable Republican in most cases, but he notes that he's been willing to buck President Bush on two major issues: the Central America Free Trade Agreement and versions of immigration restructuring that he calls "amnesty with makeup."
McHenry should have been sewing up his district by turning former foes into loyalists after coming off a close election, said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Instead, Arrington said, McHenry's ambition was in full view when he showed up time and again on national talk shows.
"They turn repeatedly to McHenry because he'll give them red meat," Arrington said of the media and the national Republican Party. "He's viewed by the Democrats as outrageous and by the Republicans as just great, 'Give them hell, McHenry.' "
McHenry got noticed for drawing attention to the taxpayer-financed airplane afforded to Pelosi when she became speaker of the House. In a floor speech in February, he began, "Our speaker loves to fly, and it shows," and went on to suggest that her jet of choice would contribute to the global warming problem she's bemoaned.
One frequent sparring mate is Frank, the equally combative liberal who chairs a panel on which McHenry serves.
In the House Financial Services Committee, Frank said, McHenry's modus operandi is to offer an amendment on a narrow interest and disappear, leaving the consensus work to others.
A recognized expert in Congress' parliamentary procedures, Frank often rules McHenry out of order.
"He's very energetic, he's hardworking, he's very partisan and he lacks a sense of balance," Frank said. "He has less of an impact on the House than he could have if he showed more restraint and more judgment. People just write him off."
McHenry gets pats on the head from some and sneers from others. But ever the unrelenting little sibling, he intends to keep coming back for more.
"I've been called many things, but I believe I'm a principled conservative who stands up and fights for what he believes in," McHenry said. "It's why I ran for office. And sometimes you have to do the heavy lifting, sometimes you have to do the tough work in order to make your issue be heard. I'm willing to do it."
Birthdate: Oct. 22, 1975.
Home: Cherryville, N.C.
Education: Ashbrook High School, Gastonia, N.C.; Belmont Abbey College, Belmont, N.C., bachelor of arts degree in history.
Political career: North Carolina House of Representatives, 2003-2004; U.S. House of Representatives, 2005-present.
Descriptive: Republican, Roman Catholic, single.
Notable: Once ran an anti-Hillary Clinton Web site.
Quotable: "I wasn't elected to sit in the back row and be quiet. I was elected to fight for core conservative principles. . . . I'm not going to waver on that."