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Noem still undecided on joining Tea Party Caucus

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said she has not yet decided whether to join the House's Tea Party Caucus.

Noem was confronted by constituents about the issue at a town hall meeting held over the weekend in Rapid City, according to media reports. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., founded the Tea Party Caucus in July 2010. The caucus' website lists 60 members from the House's 435 representatives.

Rapid City resident Stephanie Strong announced recently that she plans to challenge Noem in a Republican primary, in part because Noem voted in August for a debt-ceiling increase.

Noem defended that vote in a call with reporters Thursday.

"I really believe that vote put fundamental reforms in place," said Noem, who's in her first term. "It significantly cut spending and gave us a plan forward. Anybody who looks at the House budget we voted on this year knows we have a plan for paying off that debt. It shows the vision the Republicans have for getting the government back on track."

Noem also answered criticism she's received for being the freshman class liaison to the House Republican leadership team.

"One thing that's good for everybody to remember is the freshman class elected me to the leadership team. I wasn't put there by leadership; I was put there by my fellow new members," Noem said. "It doesn't create an alliance between me and the leadership team. I'm fighting and working for South Dakota and making sure the rest of the new members, their concerns are being carried there."

Noem said she does not mind the criticism she's received. In fact, she said she welcomes it.

"It's good. They're good people who really care about the same principles and values that I care about," she said. "They are certainly concerned about public policy, and I appreciate that. Feedback is always good. I know that not everybody is going to agree with every single vote that I place."

Noem went on to say she hopes her constituents know that in her "heart of hearts" she acts in what she believes is the best interest of South Dakota.

A Democratic Party official criticized Noem's tea party comments later Thursday.

"After only a year in Washington, Congresswoman Noem has learned how to play the political games," said South Dakota Democratic Party Chairman Ben Nesselhuf.

"She is going to ride the fence on this one for as long as she can. She has two equally unappealing choices: Join the Tea Party Caucus and show her true colors to the people of South Dakota, or reject the tea party and alienate her base."

Noem said she understands that voters of all stripes are frustrated with Washington.

"People are very frustrated that they haven't seen the president lead, have not seen Congress tackle the tough issues," she said. "At the end of the day, we need to get things accomplished.

"The mess was here before I got here. The credit card was maxed out," she said.

"I was charged with coming out and trying to fix the situation."

She said there is growing consensus that the nation's tax code needs to be reformed, but said that's unlikely during an election year.

"Some people simply aren't willing to debate policy because they are worried about politics. That makes it a difficult task to get something accomplished," she said.

Noem did address some specific policy issues during the call.

• Funding for the Lewis and Clark water project: Noem called the $5 million allocated "not nearly enough," but said it is better than the $487,000 originally slated under President Obama's budget.

• Banning insider trading: Noem supported the STOCK Act as passed by the House. The House version extends the ban on insider trading to the executive and judicial branches as well as Congress.

"We strengthened the bill. We expanded it so the ban applies to all legislative, executive and judicial branch officials and to their staff. Those who serve in all branches of the federal government cannot profit from holding their office."

• Proposed closure of Hot Springs VA facility: "I remain skeptical about the VA proposal. My No. 1 guiding principal is, what proposal best cares for South Dakota veterans? That's the plan I'm going to support," she said.