Democratic Freshmen Flex Muscle on Reform

Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:39pm

Hoping to find strength in numbers, nine Senate Democratic freshmen have come together as a bloc to try to influence the direction of the chamber’s health care overhaul.

Led by Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the newly elected Democrats will take to the floor this week to call for stabilizing health care costs and reining in spending. The move is just the latest by the new Senators, and one the Democrats say could develop into a larger health care strategy this fall.

“I think that you can really see it’s a tight-knit group of Senators who are trying to make big moves in their first year,— said Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

Earlier this summer, the nine Democratic freshmen — many of whom are moderates — called on Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to craft a bipartisan and deficit-neutral health care bill. Last week, after Baucus introduced his mark, Warner praised it as “moving the ball forward— and reiterated the need for Congress to pass a comprehensive health care bill this year.

“One of the many missing pieces is, ‘What is the cost of doing nothing?’— Warner said in an interview last week. “We can’t afford to do nothing.—

Warner will head to the floor this week to speak on the issue along with fellow Democratic freshman Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Roland Burris (Ill.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Tom Udall. There are 12 Democrats in the 15-member freshman class.

Rookie Senators typically enjoy lower profiles and work quietly in the background, taking their time to learn the institution and deferring to more seasoned Members. But the Democrats in this year’s class have been able to play a more influential role more quickly, in part because of a Democratic president with a lofty agenda.

The Democratic freshmen have attended Cabinet-level meetings at the White House this year and have been courted by President Barack Obama on key votes. Each has met with Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) to begin carving out their legislative portfolios.

Warner, who made millions in the telecommunications industry before running for Virginia governor in 2001, has been tapped to reach out to the business community; Merkley has chosen to focus on climate change and the logging industry; Hagan has expressed interest in rural development.

The class of 2008 includes three ex-governors, three former House Members and two one-time state legislators. Five freshmen were appointed to their seats, and two of those — Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Bennet — are running for full six-year terms in 2010.

Bennet was superintendent of Denver Public Schools before coming to the Senate and has never held elected office. Obama underscored Bennet’s background in education last week when he endorsed his re-election bid; Bennet faces a tough primary against former Colorado Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

“Families in Colorado and across America need him in the United States Senate to help us revitalize our economy, improve our public schools and pass health insurance reform — and I am proud to count him as my ally in those efforts,— said Obama, who just five years ago was carving out his own role as a new Senator.

Though they lack seniority, the Democratic freshmen find strength in numbers. And it doesn’t hurt that many were forced to wage tough campaigns in 2008 to win their seats.

“It’s hard for a freshman to roar in the U.S. Senate. But this is 10 percent of the body, so it’s not an insubstantial grouping,— Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said.

“This is a fairly robust group that meets pretty regularly and has done a fair amount of stuff together as a group in this Congress,— Hall said of the new class. “Any time you can get nine or 10 Senators out of 100 to walk in a straight line, it’s significant.—

As one of just three Republican freshmen, Sen. Mike Johanns (Neb.) may have a more difficult time influencing the debate. But Johanns has had a couple of legislative victories so far, including last week when the Senate approved two amendments and one bill he co-sponsored to ban federal funds from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Johanns, a former governor and Agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, also has been vocal about how cap-and-trade energy legislation will affect farmers. And during the swine flu outbreak, Johanns urged foreign countries to lift full or partial bans on U.S. pork.

“He didn’t come to the Senate cold. When you’re a Cabinet secretary, you work with the Senate a lot,— spokeswoman Anne Marie Hauser said.