U. S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the freshman congresswoman from Washington's 3rd District, is a Republican who eschews rhetorical firebombs and projects herself as an independent voice. But critics say her votes, if not her words, show her to be a hard-line conservative who moves in lock step with her party.

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In her first major act in Congress, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler voted with the GOP majority to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, saying that expressing opposition to President Obama’s signature health-care law fulfilled her pledge to voters.

Less than a week later, Herrera Beutler staked out a coveted seat near the aisle hours before the annual State of the Union address to shake — under national klieg lights — Obama’s hand.

“I may not have voted for him, but he’s still the president,” Herrera Beutler said by way of explanation.

Herrera Beutler, a Republican elected last fall from Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, has worked to present herself as something more than a partisan foot soldier for the GOP.

She backs just about every major issue on the Republican platform: She opposes abortion, the new financial-reform act, higher taxes for the rich, capping and regulating greenhouse gases and amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But Herrera Beutler, whose district had been held by a Democrat for the previous 12 years, generally eschews rhetorical firebombs. She portrays her positions less as hewing to her party’s orthodoxy than as carefully navigating between politics and principles.

“The challenge is learning what is your preference and what is your conscience,” she said in a recent interview. “I would never vote against my conscience.”

With a possible government shutdown looming over acrimonious federal budget negotiations, attention has been focused on Herrera Beutler’s GOP freshman class, which has pushed hard for deep cuts in spending.

Herrera Beutler, who supported the House bill cutting $61 billion from the current budget, has expounded as zealously as anyone in her party on a need to pare spending and slash the deficit. The first bill she introduced called for a 10 percent pay cut for members of Congress, the president and the vice president.

Dwight Pelz, head of the state Democratic Party, contends that Herrera Beutler has stuck to her party’s agenda even when it hurt the interests of her constituents.

Pelz also is skeptical of her efforts to depict herself as a non-ideologue. For instance, claiming that she has no beef with National Public Radio’s supposed liberal bent while voting to kill its federal funding smacks of hypocrisy, Pelz said.

“I don’t care about her rhetoric as much as her votes,” Pelz said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Big freshman class

Election to the U.S. House of Representatives, with its 435 members, can seem like a quick ticket to oblivion. Herrera Beutler (pronounced “butler”) is one of that chamber’s whopping 96 freshmen this year, all but nine of them Republicans.

Still, she may be better known than many. The daughter of a white mother and a Mexican-American father, she is one of five Latinos newly elected to the House on the overwhelmingly white Republican ticket. At 32, she’s also one of the youngest in Congress.

In January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell happened to wander onto the House floor during the swearing-in for the 112th Congress and plopped down on a seat next to Herrera Beutler. She promptly introduced herself as the lone Republican to flip a Democratic seat on the West Coast.

“I know,” McConnell replied.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, for whom Herrera Beutler worked as a legislative aide until 2007, said her former protegee’s “less common profile” makes her a standout addition to the GOP.

Though she’s the first Hispanic to serve in Congress from Washington state, Herrera Beutler rarely mentioned her ethnicity during her campaign against veteran Democratic legislator and operative Denny Heck to succeed the retiring Rep. Brian Baird. She had left McMorris Rodgers’ staff after Clark and Cowlitz County commissioners chose her to serve the remaining term of state Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center, who resigned in a sex scandal. She won the seat outright in 2008.

The 3rd District, which stretches from Olympia to the Oregon border, is a classic swing district. It elected Baird, a Democrat, six times.

Obama also took the 3rd in 2008. But President George W. Bush won there, too — twice.

Tea-party support helped carry Herrera Beutler into office. But she rejects the label for herself.

Unemployment in the 3rd District is among the highest in the state, and Herrera Beutler has been mindful of the backlash against proposed cuts to social services and benefits for public employees.

During last week’s recess, she met in a Vancouver, Wash., Peet’s Coffee shop with members of MoveOn.org, the liberal political-action committee, as they denounced union scapegoating and urged her to stop toeing the Republican line.

Herrera Beutler said voters elected her with a mandate to shrink the federal deficit, and she often maintains that her votes are less partisan than pragmatic.

She sided with the Republican majority to eliminate federal funding for reproductive health services provided by Planned Parenthood and other groups. Though she is strongly against abortion, Herrera Beutler contends the issue for her was simply financial.

She said she voted to strip money for Planned Parenthood only after ensuring that women in her district would still be able to get contraceptive counseling and related health services from other providers.

Skeptics watching

Democrats have pounced on Herrera Beutler’s vote to cut $61 billion from the current budget as a sign that voters will pay a price for electing her. She was one of 50 House Republicans targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) with phone calls, Web ads and emails to voters highlighting their “failed budget priorities.”

Vancouver resident Mary McMackin wrote Herrera Beutler several times to protest her budget-cut votes. It took McMackin, 62, two years to land a part-time job as a clerk in a toy store. But she got laid off recently, and McMackin gets by on Social Security and health coverage from the state-subsidized Basic Health Plan.

McMackin said Herrera Beutler responded each time to the effect that “basically we can’t afford it.” McMackin called that “a very poor argument” for actions that most hurt society’s neediest. “I really feel we lost track of our values,” she said.

Herrera Beutler said she came to her fiscal and social conservatism through her family. Her parents, Armando and Candice Herrera, were active evangelical Christians who showed their daughter that community, not the government, was the essential safety net.

Government services can thwart self-reliance, but those who can’t help themselves deserve some assistance, she said.

But “what is a safety net and what is beyond that?” she asked.

For example, Herrera Beutler supports the state’s Basic Health Plan, which McMackin now relies on. However, the congresswoman favors taking the state out as a broker and giving subsidies directly to enrollees to buy insurance on their own.

She believes that Americans can cope with a new era of fiscal austerity.

“When the federal government cuts back, I’m relying on people to step up. That’s the American tradition.”

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com