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Freshmen Brace for Attacks

Freshman Democrats came to Congress this year ready to take tough votes, but some are worried that the breakneck pace and their party leaders’ failure to match GOP messaging could translate into losses in the 2010 elections.

A month after forcing a vote on contentious climate change legislation, House Democratic leaders announced Wednesday that they will punt on health care reform until September, a move that drew mixed responses from vulnerable Democrats bracing for Republican attacks over the August recess.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), president of the freshman class, said House Democratic leaders “absolutely— need to counterpunch over the August recess because freshman Democrats will be the first to suffer from GOP blows.

“There is acute consciousness among freshmen that if there are going to be casualties from an aggressive, ambitious agenda, the most casualties will be in the first line of defense. And guess who’s manning the first line of defense: us,— Connolly said.

House leaders pushed through a vote on climate change legislation in late June, only to see it stall in the Senate and leave vulnerable Democrats grumbling.

Connolly continued: “I think more often than we would like, the opposition has succeeded in framing the issues for us. There’s a real frustration about that. Why are we letting them do that? Why aren’t we more aggressively fighting back?—

Asked how Democratic leaders are planning to counter GOP attacks over the recess, Connolly said their offense will include advertisements, press conference and local events. “But is it adequate or sufficient? I would say not yet,— he said.

Freshman Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) welcomed the delay on health care but said he is anxious for the Energy and Commerce Committee to pass a bill so he has something tangible to present to constituents over the monthlong break.

“I think it would be helpful for me to at least have a narrowing of issues to go home in August to talk about,— said Schauer, who served in the state Senate for six years. He said having a package to take home would be particularly helpful because it has been “hard to compete with conservative talk radio— when it comes to explaining key issues to the public.

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) said he is happy to postpone the health care debate because it gives him more time to explain the bill to constituents and frame the issue publicly — something he thinks Democratic leaders failed to do with climate change legislation.

“I think one of the hits we took on energy was the fact that we didn’t go out there and sell it,— Driehaus said. “It was the right bill. It’s the right thing to be doing. But we were focused on the product and not the message. And the Republicans couldn’t care less about the product, so they just went out there and played on the message.—

Driehaus wondered aloud how Democrats could do such a good job of messaging during the campaign season and then not stick to those lessons when it comes time to legislate.

“We need to help the American people see that we’re doing the right thing. That’s our job. So we need to do a better job playing offense,— said the Ohio Democrat.

Some freshman Democrats say they still favor keeping up the fast legislative pace to knock out key measures.

“If I get frustrated with anything, it’s those times when my colleagues don’t want to make the tough decisions. I wish we were putting out a health care bill right now,— said Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), an eight-year state Senator.

Pingree said she plans to go back to her district over the August recess and tell her constituents, “Look, the timing isn’t what I would have chosen, but we’re still on track.—

The Maine Democrat, who described herself as “a pretty progressive vote,— said she has always voted her conscience and would continue to do so.

This approach, according to Pingree, contrasts with that of other freshman Democrats who calculate when to vote against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to appear less liberal.

“I am personally not comfortable doing that. But I don’t have the same makeup of a district as they do,— Pingree said. “They want their percentage to be more of a spread from leadership than 98 percent. So there are literally times when people stand on the floor and say, I’ve just got to cast a few more no’ votes.—

Some freshmen aren’t concerned about bucking party leaders on key votes, such as cap-and-trade legislation, when they know they are voting in the best interests of their district.

Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a businesswoman who has never been in politics before coming to Congress, said she voted against the global warming bill — a hallmark issue for Pelosi — in part because it wasn’t refined enough.

“Did I think maybe we should have held off and gone a little slower on it? Probably,— said Dahlkemper, who represents a swing district. “I hope when it comes back around the next time that I can vote for it. That was a bit of a frustration.—

By contrast, Dahlkemper said the pace on health care reform has been better in terms of interactions with leadership and knowledge of the bill. She said she isn’t worried about delaying the bill until after August because there is still work to be done on it.

“Certainly to some people on the outside, maybe it looks like there’s an impasse. Maybe in some areas there is a little bit of an impasse. But I think these are all things that can be overcome,— Dahlkemper said.