WASHINGTON — Rep. Andy Harris wants House Republicans to use an upcoming debt-ceiling deadline to force more fiscal restraint.
And for the first time in his congressional career, the Baltimore County lawmaker could have considerable influence to make it happen.
Harris, in his third term in the House, is running to be chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a 173-member caucus that has worked since the 1970s to pull the House of Representatives to the right on fiscal and social issues.
If successful — and he is well positioned to win the group's internal election later this month — he would have considerable sway in stitching together conservatives who have been divided over the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
"I believe it's these House conservatives who are going to redefine what the word 'conservative' means, and what a Republican is," said Adam Brandon, president of the conservative group FreedomWorks, which has endorsed Harris for the chairmanship.
"If nothing else, he's going to start a debate about what the priorities will be."
Harris, a Johns Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist who won the seat in 2010 in part by opposing Obamacare, would play a role in unifying conservatives around Speaker Paul Ryan, who faces an election to retain his leadership.
He would also help decide how the House responds to a Hillary Clinton or Trump presidency.
And he would have a voice in the debate over the next debt-ceiling increase. Conservatives have used previous debt-ceiling deadlines to demand fiscal concessions. Congress will likely have to raise the cap again in March or risk defaulting on U.S. debt.
Washington approached the brink of default in 2011 and 2013. After Republicans took most of the blame for the 2013 government shutdown, GOP leaders have rammed subsequent debt-ceiling increases through the House with less drama.
But if predictions for next week's election hold, and Democrats pick up some House seats but not enough to secure a majority, the chamber will be led next year by a smaller, more conservative GOP conference.
That could complicate Ryan's job on must-pass bills and give the Republican Study Committee more power to exert influence.
"I believe that in this session of Congress, we are going to have to focus on the economy and financial issues — and the first one that's going to come right up is the debt ceiling," Harris told The Baltimore Sun.
"The RSC can take a very active role … in bringing forward the idea to the American people that you have to actually consider balancing the budget at some point and paying down the federal debt," he said.
"That's the message that we need to send right at the beginning of this term."
Democrats have said debt-ceiling brinksmanship is reckless — the equivalent of holding the nation's credit score hostage.
"Right now, [Republicans] can't even pass their own stuff," President Barack Obama said last week, in arguing for a Democratic Congress. "And all we're going to see is more gridlock and more obstruction, and more threats to shut down the government, and more threats to wreck the economy."
Harris, 59, won re-election in 2014 with more than 70 percent of the vote. He faces Democratic lawyer Joe Werner of Harford County and Libertarian Matt Beers on Election Day. Werner could not be reached for comment.
Harris represents the state's heavily Republican 1st Congressional District, which includes the Eastern Shore and portions of Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties. He won a spot on the House Appropriations Committee in 2013 and has taken a leading role in developing health care policy in the House.
The Republican Study Committee chairmanship has sometimes been viewed as a springboard to leadership. Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence was chairman from 2005 to 2007. The current House majority whip, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, was chairman from 2013 to 2014.
If successful, Harris would serve two years.
Harris, who considered running in 2014 but dropped out after the sudden death of his wife, is basing his candidacy on the idea that he is best positioned to unify conservatives. He is a member of the much smaller Freedom Caucus, which often agrees with the Republican Study Committee on policy but favors a more aggressive approach in confronting House leaders.
Some Freedom Caucus lawmakers have considered withdrawing from the Republican Study Committee. But if one of their own becomes chairman, it likely would stem at least some defections.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus and its current chairman, and Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, the current chairman of the Republican Study Committee, wrote in September that Harris' three terms in the House would "be beneficial to the organization."
Harris faces Rep. Mark Walker, a first-term Republican from North Carolina, who is not a member of the Freedom Caucus.
"I believe the RSC is best equipped to take our conservative message to new communities and build bridges across traditional political and cultural divides," Walker said in a statement. "As chairman, I would strive to promote effective conservatism by coalescing members around achievable goals and engaging early and consistently in the legislative process."
Before the Republican Study Committee holds its chairmanship election, House Republicans are scheduled to vote on whether to give Ryan another term as their leader. While some conservatives have expressed discontent with Ryan's performance, it is not clear anyone else wants the job.
Harris, who was at times critical of former Speaker John Boehner, had positive things to say about Ryan.
"Paul is a good, right-of-center conservative, who has a tough job," he said. "There's a reason you don't make a lot of friends that way."
The Republican Study Committee was created in 1973 to serve as the conservative arm of the House Republicans at a time when many on the right felt President Richard Nixon was steamrolling the caucus.
The committee has grown considerably since, causing some to question whether it has strayed from its mission.
Ed Feulner, a founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Harris could help confront those questions. Feulner, a member of Trump's transition team, was the committee's executive director during its early days.
Harris "can very much be the bridge between the leadership on the one side and the ... guys and gals in the Freedom Caucus on the other," he said, "bringing everybody back together."