Lay Down Sali

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On January 10, freshman Republican Bill Sali got up to speak at theHouse debate on the minimum-wage increase. The measure was sure topass, and the debate was so stultifying that even Alcee Hastings,languorously draped in the speaker's chair, looked bored. Grippingthe podium, the burly Sali began with the customary boilerplate.Then he paused and, as a smile spread across his silver-goateedface, continued: "Mr. Speaker, I have asked my staff to draft ameasure I call the Obesity Reduction and Health Promotion Act.Since Congress will apparently not be restrained by the laws andprinciples that naturally exist, I propose that the force ofgravity--by the force of Congress-- be reduced by 10 percent."

A parody bill to promote weight loss by limiting gravity! Brought tolife, the handful of Republicans in the chamber holleredappreciatively, and Buck McKeon, the presiding Republican, beamedand guffawed like a proud papa.

Sali's quick rise in Washington began ten days after winning hisrace in Idaho, when his fellow Republican newbies elected himpresident of their freshman class. Yes, it's kind of like highschool: Every two years, each party's rookie representatives gettogether and vote by secret ballot for their class president, whoassumes such thankless duties as providing a room and refreshmentsfor the class's weekly meetings. (This year, Sali even plans toarrange mixers with the Democratic frosh.) Although not all winnersgo on to greatness (Representative Roger Wicker, class of '94,continues to toil away in relative obscurity), they usually lookimpressive on paper and have an eager-to- achieve attitude: GOPclass of '04 Bobby Jindal's official congressional biographyincludes his 4.0 GPA from Brown.

Sali, on the other hand, not only happens to be the freshman classpresident, he totally is a freshman class president, at the soullevel: a cut-up, a hell- raiser lauded by his new peers inWashington but resented by authority figures in his past. Thishistory might not seem like a high recommendation for a leadershippost, but it's why he's perfect for the job.

Last April, in the midst of his primary campaign for the FirstDistrict's open congressional seat, Sali made a speech in the Idahostate legislature that linked abortion to breast cancer in front ofa colleague who'd battled breast cancer. The Republican speaker hadto shut the session down, and he later railed to reporters thatSali was an "absolute idiot" who "doesn't have one ounce of empathyin his whole fricking body."

Before Sali entered political life, he had a modest careerpracticing law, selling Caterpillar equipment, and playing thedrums in combos like Idaho the Band, a finalist in the True ValueHardware Country Showdown. But, in the state legislature, which hejoined in 1990, he achieved a certain variety of fame. AnotherRepublican speaker once threatened to throw Sali out his officewindow; several other representatives allegedly asked him to pleasedo it from a higher floor. In 2002, Sali provoked a furor when hesaid that Idaho taxpayers shouldn't pay for Medicaid abortions"just so a girl can have a nice bikini figure." And he became thebutt of local jokes when he opined that "much of the time in thelegislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."He stated this in a lawsuit where he claimed that a car accidentafflicted him with a condition he described as "brain fade."

In 1998, when Republicans had a majority to preserve, Republicanfreshman president Jim DeMint cautiously warned his class against"stirring up trouble" like the "crash-and-burn" revolutionaries of1994. But now, when congressional Republicans are demoralized, thecapacity to stir up a little trouble looks more heroic. Sali wasencouraged to run for president by fellow Club for Growth-supported freshmen, who respected the way he'd uncompromisinglyfaced a hostile press. "I went through a tough election myself,"explains Colorado's Doug Lamborn. On principles and style, Salievokes the gleeful warriors of '94, particularly those theatricalanti-government Westerners like Idaho's Helen Chenoweth-Hage, whoheld endangered-salmon bakes. "He's an interesting presence, " saysa House Republican leadership aide, likening him to "strongconservatives in the past, Newt Gingrich, these bomb-throwers thatcome up"-- and adding that John Boehner is looking for spiritedpeople who can keep them in the game.

But some in the party don't want the return of Rambo Republicans.After all, they probably lost this year not because they driftedtoo far from the aesthetic of '94, but because they failed toevolve beyond it. Sali himself perceives that the whole politicalidiom might be more affable and technocratic now: In ourconversation, he reveals a fascination with the nuts and bolts ofpolicy and even seems to hope his more provocative moments willinspire respect from Democrats. After his obesity bill stunt, Salireminds me, Hastings "was just laughing his guts out! And, on apersonal level," he continues, "I haven't said two words to him,but I know that we connected at that moment."

But was Hastings laughing with, or laughing at? No matter. It's hisfighting skills--not his bonding ability--that get Sali noticed,and he's willing to deliver. Just before we meet, I catch Sali on atelevision outside the Natural Resources Committee room, where heis stuck in a hearing. The ring of seats for representatives ispractically empty, but Sali remains, relentlessly grilling abeleaguered female bureaucrat who alternately protests that hisquestions are not on topic and looks back haplessly at the legs ofthe witnesses seated behind her for help. When he emerges to walkme back to his office, he grins. "I was having so much fun inthere!"

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