By Graham Moomow
Rep. Robert Hurt has just finished describing how it's his staff that makes his Capitol Hill office tick when the clock on his wall springs to life.
A loud buzz fills the room in the Longworth congressional building as a set of seemingly random numbers lights up on the black-and-white clock face behind him.
"You might think that I know what that means, but I have no clue," Hurt deadpans as he looks straight ahead. "These bells and lights, nobody knows what they mean. It's left over from like the 1920s, I guess. Great example of Washington and how well it works and how efficient it is."
The freshman Republican may still be learning the quirks that come with the job of representing Virginia's 5th District, but he stands among a new GOP House majority that he says is doing its best to clean up the mess left by a "monumental failure to lead" on the part of Democrats.
The 41-year-old former Chatham city councilman and state legislator is one of 87 new Republicans in the House, the result of an anti-Washington wave election that President Barack Obama famously called a "shellacking."
Government spending and job creation, Hurt said, were the two main issues in the 2010 election, in which he beat Democrat Tom Perriello by a margin of 50.8 percent to 46.9 percent, or about 9,000 votes.
In his first 100 days, Hurt has supported legislation that would cut billions from the federal budget, repeal Obama's health care overhaul, block Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations and allow oil drilling off the coast of Virginia.
His approach to job creation has focused on cutting back environmental and financial regulations, many of which he believes impose unnecessary burdens that impede private-sector growth.
In a new era of divided government, much of the legislation Hurt has supported has gone nowhere fast in the Democratic Senate, but he says he will continue to push to "undo the damage" of the last two years.
"People question whether or not we're just spinning our wheels here. I don't think that we are. We are taking the palpable expression of the people in this last election and putting it to action," Hurt said last week in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. "The American people are sick of Washington spending more money than it has and expecting the taxpayers to foot the bill."
On the defining issue of the new Congress -- government spending -- Hurt has walked a fine line between the Republican leadership and a need to stand firm on a campaign promise to cut spending.
He was one of 59 Republicans to break with the party Thursday by voting against the last-minute budget deal that prevented a government shutdown. The bill, which promises $38 billion in cuts, passed 260-167 with the support of 81 Democrats.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office cast doubt on the $38 billion figure in a report that found the bill would only reduce the current year's deficit by $352 million.
Hurt said he doesn't doubt that the bill contains $38 billion in real cuts, but the report shows a lack of transparency in the budgeting process that exemplifies what people hate about Washington.
"The bottom line is, I wasn't satisfied that it cut enough between now and Sept. 30," Hurt said.
A local tea party group criticized Hurt after he voted for two short-term budget fixes that kept the government operating, but leaders applauded his decision to reject the final compromise.
"For congressman Hurt to not settle for that small of a cut was the right thing to do," said Carole Thorpe, the chairwoman of the Jefferson Area Tea Party. "We are deeply disappointed in the Republicans who chose to play nice and break their promise to the American people that they would get serious about cutting spending."
Hurt said there has been some difference of opinion about tactics, but he and the tea party share the same goals.
"We're all on the same page," Hurt said. "We're singing off the same sheet of music."
On Friday, Hurt voted for the GOP's "Path to Prosperity" budget plan for fiscal 2012 put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. The plan would cut spending by $5.8 trillion over a decade, transform Medicare into a government-funded voucher program, turn Medicaid into a system of block grant payments to states and extend the Bush tax cuts while reducing top income tax rates for individuals and corporations. The bill passed the House 235-193 on a largely party-line vote, with four Republicans in opposition.
In a statement, Hurt said the plan is an "honest, straightforward and responsible approach."
Democrats have said the bill is a non-starter in the Senate.
The conservative position on federal spending isn't a matter of ideology, Hurt said, it's a matter of facing facts.
"We are spending $1.6 trillion that we don't have. We have borrowed $14 trillion. You can't look at those facts and not discern that it is unsustainable," Hurt said.
Hurt said the votes to cut spending -- specifically those that involve entitlement programs -- are tough because they have a real effect on people's lives, but lawmakers have to be honest.
"You're talking about a system that was predicated on the fact that politicians for years and years and years have been coming to Washington and making promises that they couldn't keep," Hurt said. "And they've taken actions that have put us into a place where now we are faced with either making drastic changes to the program, or having it collapse."
It may not be popular, Hurt said, but it has to be done.
"Do we really want to be the first generation to hand off to our children and grandchildren a poorer nation than we were blessed to be given?" Hurt said.
"A full schedule'
A typical day for Hurt starts at 8 a.m. and doesn't let up until 9 p.m.
On April 6, his schedule began with an office staff meeting before a morning bill markup in the Financial Services Committee, which oversees the banking, insurance and housing industries.
The ten-minute walk to the committee room in the Rayburn office building is a maze of subterranean hallways and escalators, but Hurt and his aides have it down pat, talking bill minutiae as they cut through an underground parking deck.
After more meetings and phone calls, Hurt was whisked over to a Virginia Association of Realtors luncheon, where he promised to continue efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Hurt's entourage then sped back to the Capitol building, where he was due on the House floor for a vote.
In the afternoon, Hurt popped in and out of another committee meeting to meet with constituents outside in the hallway.
"It's a full schedule that's for sure," Hurt said. "If I didn't have a good staff that was helping me figure all this out, it wouldn't get done. And if it did, it wouldn't be getting done very well."
A hyper-partisan atmosphere and a slower pace are the biggest differences Hurt sees at the federal level as opposed to his state and local experience.
"Those two things together are disappointing, although it's not surprising," Hurt said. "I had some sense of what a swamp this place is."
In addition to those frustrations, Hurt is still learning to balance the demanding schedule with family responsibilities.
"The most important things in my life are my three children and my wife," Hurt said. "Obviously Kathy and I would not have undertaken this if we didn't think that we could be true to our number one priority and that is raising our children, but with that said, it's a work in progress trying to figure out how to best balance all of that."
Tucker Watkins, a former chairman of the 5th District Republican Committee who has known Hurt since 2001, said the congressman has done a good job of letting people know exactly what he believes as he travels the district.
"His message is consistent wherever he goes," said Watkins. "He doesn't change it from one audience to another."
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Hurt has performed exactly as advertised.
"No surprises," said Sabato. "That's what a lot of people want in their representative."
Hurt's vote against the budget compromise, Sabato said, will put him in good standing with the tea party ahead of what will likely be another competitive election next year.
"He's a freshman. He is not completely secure," Sabato said. "He'll certainly have a race in 2012."
The only person who might stand a chance against Hurt, Watkins said, is his former opponent: Perriello.
"I just don't see anybody other than him being that strong," said Watkins.
"Can't afford another 100 days'
This much is sure: Democrats will and already have targeted the 5th District as a seat worth fighting for.
In early February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included Hurt in an ad campaign targeting 19 House Republicans the group sees as vulnerable.
"From destroying hundreds of thousands of American jobs to protecting tax breaks for big oil companies making record profits and even nearly shutting down government to advance an extreme social agenda, Representative Robert Hurt's agenda has gotten worse by the day," DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson said in an email. "And on the 101st day in Congress, Representative Hurt voted to end Medicare. Virginia families can't afford another 100 days like the Republicans' first one hundred."
"An historic time'
"Have you seen my view of the Capitol?" Hurt asks with a chuckle as he points to the window behind his desk.
On first glance, the only thing visible is the courtyard of his congressional office building. But in the distance, just barely peeking over the opposite wall, rises the bronze Statue of Freedom atop a tiny white sliver of the Capitol dome.
Though he jokes about being the low man on the totem pole when it comes to office space, he believes he has been sent to Washington at a pivotal moment.
"It's an honor to be here at an historic time that I think will truly dictate whether or not this new century is going to be an American century or not," Hurt said. "Are we going to remain a beacon for freedom and liberty all across the world? Or is that beacon going to be diminished?"