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The chairmen of the House Financial Services Committee and the Joint Economic Committee joined a press conference Thursday to announce new legislation to create a national insurance fund for catastrophic events, but a freshman Democrat from Florida spoke first, and his name, not theirs, is on the bill.

Rep. Ron Klein, who ousted GOP Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida’s 22nd district, has been tapped by Democratic leadership — along with Rep. Tim Mahoney, who took former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R) seat in Florida’s 16th district — to draft the Klein-Mahoney National Risk Catastrophe legislation. The event underscores Democrats’ efforts to give their freshmen in competitive districts not only high-profile speaking opportunities but also the chance to claim legislative leadership on issues close to the pocketbooks of their constituents.

Klein said in an interview that hurricane insurance has become a major issue in Florida as insurers have either stopped offering coverage or offered it only at dramatically increased rates. Klein had been involved in insurance issues during his years in the state Legislature, and when he got to Congress it was one of the first issues he discussed with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), he said. Pelosi and Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) asked Klein to take a lead role on the legislation, he said, because “they wanted to take advantage of my expertise and they wanted to help me a little bit” by giving him a high profile on an issue important back home.

Mahoney said Monday that insurance is “the biggest political issue in the state of Florida. … One in five businesses are not able to get property insurance.” But being vocal on the issue on the campaign trail is not enough.

“The trick being in the majority is to be able to get on the agenda,” he said. “You can drop bills all day long … the real key is to be able to get the leadership committed to moving them.”

Another freshman benefiting from the commitment of leadership is Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), one of two freshmen to have had a bill passed by the House this year. McNerney’s legislation, which would establish a $125 million grant program to help communities recycle wastewater and find other techniques for generating alternative water supplies, was wrapped into a three-bill package of clean water legislation that passed the House earlier this month.

The issue is critical to the central California district McNerney represents, where there is significant growth but no readily available water source. “There has definitely been a lot of interest [in the issue] from water agencies in his district,” said Andy Stone, McNerney’s spokesman.

Water conservation and recycling also are listed as critical issues on the Web site of the California chapter of the Sierra Club, which dropped $63,000 into McNerney’s campaign in the final days before his upset victory over Republican Rep. Richard Pombo. And in a Nov. 9 press release, the local chapter of Clean Water Action detailed its door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and literature drops in support of McNerney’s campaign.

Even without free-standing legislation, freshmen are finding that leadership is making room for local priorities on other bills that are moving through the House.

At the request of Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee included language in the highway bill “technical corrections” package that clarifies the designation of a critical interstate route in his Western Pennsylvania district. Moving the Water Resources Development Act last week, the same committee accepted the request of freshman Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) for $105 million for an ecosystem restoration plan on the Salt River and provided $1.7 billion for Everglades restoration projects in Mahoney’s district.

In fact, the water resources bill reads like a “Who’s Who” of freshman Democrats whose districts are represented. Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio got approval of an Army Corps of Engineers study for the Tuscarawas River; Rep. Phil Hare of Indiana got an increase for a levee maintenance project from $5 million to $7.5 million; Rep. Michael Arcuri of New York got several dams in his district put on a fast track for Army Corps studies. Democratic leaders point out that WRDA was a bipartisan bill with long lists of projects for members of both parties.

Of the earmarks in WRDA, Mahoney said, “I would be less than candid to say that the leadership doesn’t recognize that my ability to get funding for the [Everglades] would be a good political thing.” But he said it is Republicans, more than Democrats, who created those political openings for him. “The opportunity for us to shine was really created by the fact that the Republicans in the last eight to 10 years didn’t achieve all that much.”

Democratic leadership staffers say there has been an effort to offer assistance to freshman Members, but they downplay the role of leadership in providing assistance on specific issues like local earmarks.

“The Speaker meets with the freshmen every week on Wednesday mornings, and not one of those meetings goes by that she doesn’t remind them that their first priority is to represent the constituents that sent them to Washington,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

One leadership aide said, “The House Democratic Caucus has been working with our new Members to kind of identity legislation that they can take leadership on and identify ways in which they can play an important role … in a way that kind of shows that they aren’t just coming to Washington and sitting on their hands.”

But another aide said the leadership involvement may be less than has been portrayed in the press.

“There is no question that the Democratic leadership has given significant thought to how it can help these folks succeed,” this aide said, but “it is definitely a mistake to assume that these folks are not aggressively advocating” for their own issues and their own districts.

“There is a misconception that there is the leadership, sitting around and doling out legislative assignments,” the aide said, when the ideas are generally coming from the freshmen themselves. “It is not as if things are being handed out.”

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