WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Dave Brat came down the hallway on his way to his office, a bag slung over his shoulder and no aide in sight, and bent over to take a swig from a public water fountain. It's a sight you rarely see from members of Congress, who usually drink from the water in their offices.
Five months after his upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Brat comes across as down-to-earth and says his constituents have warned him not to let Washington change him.
"Everyone just says, 'Dave, keep being yourself,'" Brat said in an interview in his sparsely decorated office this week. "'You better not change. You better keep being Dave.'"
It's not surprising Brat, R-Va., takes the advice to heart. In his successful primary challenge, Brat painted Cantor as a Beltway insider who had lost touch with his conservative base at home. Now a national figure himself championed by the tea party, Brat vows to stay grounded in his district, which includes part of Richmond and surrounding suburbs.
"I made a pledge to visit all nine counties and the city in my district at least once month," Brat said. "So I'm going to try to stay up on that from day one. I finish here Thursday, and then Friday and Saturday I'm going to be sweeping through the district again, meeting with several counties and constituents and having meetings, and trying to stay in touch from day one."
Brat, 50, was sworn in last week, about two months before most freshmen lawmakers, because he also won a special election to fill the seat that Cantor vacated when he resigned in August. But he says he'll make his push when Congress returns next year, focusing on key issues he ran on: term limits for lawmakers; a "fair tax" or "flat tax"; and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the limited power of a freshman lawmaker, Brat said he'll look for senior members to team up with on those efforts.
Brat said he isn't daunted by the fact that there's no chance a repeal of the health care law will be signed by President Barack Obama.
"I pledged to speak up on principle when I ran on repealing Obamacare," said Brat, who taught economics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. "So I think it's not just a 'Can you overcome a veto' question. It is a matter of substance, and explaining to the American people what's at stake."
"There's this overwhelming burst that you saw in the elections," Brat added, referring to the huge gains made by Republicans in both houses of Congress. "And so it's important even if there's a veto, the American people spoke. And the House is the body that's closest to the people. So it's our job also to share with the executive branch what the people are saying."
His quest for a flat income tax or a fair tax on consumption to replace the current federal income tax system likewise faces daunting odds — as does any proposal to term-limit members of Congress. Brat has personally agreed to a limit of 12 years in Congress.
Brat said he's seeking assignments to economic-related committees: Financial Services; Budget; Small Business; and Education and the Workforce.
For now, he's just getting unpacked. The walls in his office are bare, save for a Virginia flag, and his bookshelves are empty. On his desk sits a Bible, a guestbook, the Journal of Constitutional Convention, and the House Rules & Manual.
He said with a laugh that he'll keep drinking out of the water fountains.
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