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Freshman Democrats Find They’re Being Watched

Freshman Democrats came to Congress in January ready to act on their party’s top priorities. But now, nine months into the 111th Congress, the excitement of being in charge of government is giving way to the drudgery that is governing. And the likelihood of Democrats advancing the ambitious agenda that they set out for themselves — namely, passing health care reform and climate change bills —is starting to wane.

Intraparty scuffles over the inclusion of a public insurance option in health care reform have stalled the effort as other major initiatives await action on the back burner. And as disagreements continue to mount, one thing becoming apparent is that a failure to break the logjam spells disaster for Democrats, both legislatively and politically.

Freshmen, particularly those in swing districts, are the most vulnerable in 2010 should party leaders fail to push through health care reform, an issue powerful enough to make or break their rookie careers in Congress. Many staked their campaigns on bringing change to Washington.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), president of the freshman class, said the August recess was a “pretty wild and woolly— time for first-term Democrats, who are being bombarded with constituents’ varying points of views on health care reform and other issues at town hall forums across the country.

“Obviously, my freshman colleagues are getting a heavy dose of negative feedback. In more competitive or Democratic districts, we’re hearing from the left as well as the right,— Connolly said.

The Virginia Democrat said geography plays a crucial role in shaping how constituents will judge newly elected lawmakers on major issues that up for a vote. “There’s a big difference between what Dan Maffei hears at a New York state fair and what Ann Kirkpatrick hears in northern Arizona,— he said.

In addition to climate change, other contentious issues awaiting action include financial sector reform, comprehensive immigration reform and budget-related bills. It remains to be seen if there will be votes on more politically sensitive topics, such as the war in Afghanistan or a repeal of the don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy banning gays from serving openly in the military.

For now, Connolly urged all factions of Democrats to find common ground on health care — and soon — if they want to stay in the majority.

“If you want a reprise of 1993 and 1994, fail to enact health reform in 2009. We absolutely stand to lose on all fronts,— he said. “It’s a double whammy: The base was expecting you to act and you’re certainly not going to win any brownie points from the opposition.—

Freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), who represents a swing district, similarly warned that not passing health care legislation could hurt her re-election hopes and be “a big blow to the rest of the party.—

“People in my district want us to do it,— said Dahlkemper, a businesswoman with no prior political experience. It is “certainly a concern— that Democratic leaders will not be able to pass health care legislation this year, she said.

Not all freshmen are nervous about controversial issues jeopardizing their re-election in 2010, however.

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio), who represents a district with a near 50/50 partisan divide, said it doesn’t bother him that the Republican National Committee singles him out for attacks and that RNC Chairman Michael Steele pays visits to his district.

“If he wants to play politics, he can play politics. I’m far more interested in good policy,— Driehaus said. “We’re elected to govern. That’s why I ran for office. I didn’t run to worry about my re-election.—

Still, Driehaus conceded that he is in a competitive district and “people are going to talk about the race.—

Unlike the House, where key bills on climate change have already been considered either by the full House or in committee, the Senate has moved far more slowly. That chamber has yet to consider a climate change measure and continues to work through negotiations on a bipartisan health care package. As such, the chamber’s 12 freshman Democrats have largely escaped tough votes, at least for now.

“It’s important for this class to remember they were elected in a year calling for change. They’ve delivered so far, but a lot of the big fights on major reform issues lie ahead,— one Senate Democratic aide said.

The Senate’s freshman class includes three former governors, three one-time House Members and two former state legislators. Although two of the Senate rookie Members were appointed to their seats and must run in 2010 to retain them, most aren’t up for re-election until 2014, which gives them far more time than their House counterparts to establish a presence and shape their legislative record.

“Having served as governor, Sen. [Jeanne] Shaheen understands that the legislative process takes time, negotiation and compromise,— said Colleen Murray, a spokeswoman for the freshman Democrat from New Hampshire. “She is focused on finding ways to work together to accomplish key legislative goals.—

Another Democratic aide observed the opportunities that tough votes give to new Senators.

“How do you carve out a role as a freshman Senator? You do it by latching onto some priority issues and bird-dogging them,— the aide said.

For appointed Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who will compete for their seats for the first time in 2010, votes in the coming year play a role in helping them to win on their own merits.

But for freshman Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who both sit on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, controversial topics like health care reform pose both rewards and risks for them in 2014.

Hagan recognizes the importance of her votes on the committee and is “taking the opinions of her constituents very seriously on health care,— said her spokeswoman, Stephanie Allen. The Senator “wants to ensure the final health care package is a moderate compromise.—

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