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Wagner emerges as a GOP player

Ann Wagner in her D.C. office
Robert Koenig | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON -- The frustrations of freshman members of Congress are well documented, as most of the political big fish in their home districts suddenly find themselves reduced to mere guppies when they enter the seniority-ruled shark tank of the U.S. House.

But six months into her job, U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, has become a player of sorts on Capitol Hill.

She is on the lowest rung of House GOP leadership, has become an active member of the Financial Services committee, and is a prodigious fundraiser who is working hard to recruit Republican women candidates to run for U.S. House seats in 2014.

"I feel like I've made a difference, and I've been able to contribute," Wagner said in a wide-ranging interview last week. "Yes, there are frustrations with the Washington, D.C. culture, the dysfunction and the distrust by the American people of their government. While that's disappointing, I try and channel it back to the work that we are doing."

Wagner -- a former businesswoman, ambassador and party chair who had never before held legislative office -- also has been defining her positions on some hot-button national issues that divide her political supporters and opponents.

On polarizing issues such as gun control, abortion, immigration, same-sex marriage and climate change, Wagner's generally conservative stances have rankled some voters and encouraged others in the 2nd Congressional District in St. Louis County.

Through it all, Wagner -- who boasts about spending as little time in Washington as possible -- says she has focused much of her efforts on providing constituent services and in trying to represent the concerns of individuals, businesses and organizations in her district. That's an area where some felt that her predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, was not particularly strong.

"Casework is huge," she said, adding that her office has resolved more than two-thirds of the 135 to 150 cases that her office has opened so far. Most of those involve 2nd District residents who encounter problems in dealing with various branches of the federal government -- "whether it's an adoption issue, a veterans issue or issues with visas or Social Security."

In addition, Wagner reports that, between her office opening on Jan. 4 and the end of June, she or staff members responded to about 96 percent of the 23,911 emails, postcards, letters and phone calls she received on issues from health care to immigration and gun control.

"We hit the ground running and we haven't let up," said Wagner, 50, sitting at the desk in her office in the Cannon House Office Building. She proudly displays a sign on her desk: "Well behaved women rarely make history."

Recruiting women, sitting at GOP leadership table

In late June, a full-page article in The Hill -- an insider publication on Capitol Hill -- ran under the headline: "Rep. Wagner seeks to strengthen female voice in the Republican Party."

For Wagner, recruiting women to support the GOP and run for office is not exactly new. When she co-chaired the Republican National Committee from 2001-2005, Wagner helped organize the RNC's "Winning Women" initiative, which aimed to bolster the party's standing among women voters, in part by convincing more women to run.

"I am doing whatever I can to grow our ranks of women in Congress," said Wagner, who talks often with the other 18 GOP women in the House and has helped recruit female candidates in about 20 of the House districts that the party hopes to win next year.

"I think women are doers. We bring people together. We multitask well. I do whatever I can to support women being involved in public policy," Wagner said. "Republicans also need to keep this majority in 2014. It's important to balance the power in Washington."

As a member of the House GOP leadership -- elected to represent the 33 freshmen Republicans in the House -- Wagner is well aware of the power of the majority. Under House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House has emerged as a counterpoint to the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House by launching frequent assaults on "Obamacare," taking a different course on immigration reform, and blocking prospects for significant gun-control legislation.

"Leadership is a tough job. There are a lot of people with strong ideas, strong personalities," said Wagner, who admires both Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "While we've had some bumps in the road, I'm proud of some of our accomplishments."

In a sense, the House has presented a sort of alternate universe to the Senate, and bipartisan progress has been difficult on most issues. Wagner points to the "No Budget, No Pay" bill, which extended the debt ceiling and pressured lawmakers to adopt a budget or have their pay withheld.

Even though the draconian sequester budget cuts went into effect, Wagner says, "We were able to navigate the sequester - although it wasn't anything that we wanted, and [the House] put two replacements forward. At the end of the day, we worked in a bipartisan way with the Senate, to make sure that -- to the extent possible -- we are cutting waste and not workers."

Wagner says that representing her fellow GOP freshman has been "an eye-opener" into the workings of congressional influence. "What has impressed me most about the House is that it truly is, 'We, the people,'" she said.

She described the freshmen GOP House members she leads as a "group of teachers, doctors, plumbers, small business owners, mothers, grandparents, people who have served in the military. Each one has a unique background."

Despite ideological split, state delegation meets

Wagner also meets regularly with the other members of Missouri's delegation in Congress, which -- with the departure of former U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson in February to take another job -- is now divided between conservative and liberals, with not much room for moderates.

While Emerson was a generally moderate Republican and dean of the delegation, Wagner on most issues reflects the conservative views of the state's other five GOP House members. Meanwhile, the two remaining Democrats -- U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay of St. Louis and Emanuel Cleaver of Kansas City -- are among the most liberal lawmakers in the House.

Despite the ideological differences, Wagner and Clay have worked together on issues such as naming the new Mississippi River bridgethe "Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge."

"I get along with everybody in the delegation," said Wagner, saying she has a good working relationship with Clay on local issues, despite their sharp differences on many national issues. "I believe the only way we're going to find solutions and work together and build relationships."

While Wagner and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., differ greatly on many national issues, Wagner said she supports the senior senator's efforts to change the law to help deter sexual assaults in the military. "Claire and I share a real passion to get the bottom of the sexual assault" issue, she said.

As for the state's junior senator, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Wagner has known him for decades and served as chairman of his successful 2010 campaign for the Senate. The two of them talk often and tend to agree on many issues.

Defining big issues among 2nd District voters

In a year that started with gun control and the budget as the biggest issues, Wagner said most of the emails, letters and phone calls fielded by her office are on health care and "government trust."

"You know what we're hearing a ton about? Health care," said Wagner, who has backed House efforts to repeal or revamp the Affordable Care Act. "And right now on immigration because it was a hot issue in the Senate. And trust in government -- whether it is the IRS, the Justice Department or Benghazi."

While gun control was a hot issue early in the year, Wagner said she is "not hearing so much anymore" about the effort to limit automatic weapons and tighten gun registration. "With this 24/7 news cycle and everybody's always moving on to the next issue."

While Wagner's position on immigration reform is not as rigid as many others in the House GOP, she is a Second Amendment stalwart when it comes to gun control legislation. In fact, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart lampooned Wagner in January 2011 when she boasted -- during a debate with other candidates to head the RNC -- that she had 16 guns in her household in west St. Louis County.

With the Senate unable to approve significant gun control legislation so far this year, the House may not even take up the issue. On immigration, however, Boehner has said the House will take a different approach that the landmark legislation that the Senate passed in late June.

Wagner worries that the Senate bill is too much of a "Christmas tree" with extraneous amendments and expenses. "I see us in the House taking a much more thoughtful and incremental approach to things," Wagner said, adding that "I hate when we rush things on such an important topic."

Calling immigration "a very important issue," Wagner said "I understand the need for reform. The system is broken and, if we do nothing, it is the de-facto amnesty that we have currently. We need to do something."

Establishing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country may prove to be a hard sell in the House. But Wagner said that revamping high-skilled visas is "a huge issue" in the 2nd District.

"Some of the things we are talking about in the House have to do with our workforce needs and guest worker visas and certainly high-skilled visas. It impacts universities, the biotech and health care industries."

Targeting Dodd-Frank in Financial Services

Wagner has added her name as a cosponsor or sponsor to more than 30 bills, but her most significant legislative achievement so far has been in the House Financial Services Committee, on which she serves with three other Missourians who have more seniority.

"Some of the best bipartisan moments have been in the Financial Services," said Wagner, citing a 44-13 committee vote in June for her Retail Investor Protection Act, which would delay a Department of Labor rule-making process on the definition of a "fiduciary."

Wagner is targeting a section of the Dodd-Frank law that authorizes the SEC to issue rules to extend the fiduciary standard of conduct applicable to investment advisers to broker-dealers when providing advice about securities to retail customers. Her bill would prevent the Labor Department from developing a new definition of a fiduciary until two months after the SEC issues its final rule relating to standards of conduct for brokers-dealers.

"This is something I've been working on for months," said Wagner, contendin

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.