Dem freshmen work to back up promises, and reelection prospects, with legislation

As Republicans accuse the new Democratic majority of running a “do-nothing Congress,” Democratic freshmen are seeking to prove they are following through on their campaign promises to accomplish a lot with their new jobs.

The 42 freshmen elected in November 2006, many of whom are vulnerable in next year’s election, have been touting their legislative achievements halfway through their first terms in Congress, hoping their policy work will help convince voters to give them a second.

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Some of them have been marched out front by Democratic leadership on key national issues such as Iraq and ethics, while others have been credited with work on legislation directly benefiting their districts.

In either case, the Democratic leadership sees legislation as being paramount to the freshmen’s 2008 prospects.
And with many of the freshmen representing swing or conservative districts, much of their policy work has appeal outside traditional Democratic circles.

Just last week, two freshman Democrats from hurricane-prone Florida passed a bill that would create a federal program to back up private insurers that assist homeowners in catastrophes. The bill attempts to stabilize the insurance market by creating a federal fund for major catastrophes through the sale of bonds .

Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) is among the most imperiled members of the class after winning a conservative district thanks to former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) page scandal. Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), though without a strong challenge at this point, could be a target as well.

“This is why Florida elected more Democrats to Congress in 2006,” the Florida Democratic Party declared in a release hailing the passage of the bill.

The Klein-Mahoney bill was just the most recent example of legislation the candidates will be able to point to on the campaign trail.

Another example is Rep. Heath Shuler’s (D-N.C.) bipartisan enforcement-first illegal immigration bill, which has been gaining momentum in recent weeks and should bolster his case for reelection in a conservative-leaning district.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who represents a border district on the front lines of the issue, worked to restore $30 million in funding for a program that reimburses local law enforcement for incarcerating illegal immigrants. It was later added to an appropriations bill.

Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), a freshman member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was a key player during the floor debate Wednesday on the transportation spending measure.

And Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) claimed a “historic day” for the defense industry in his district last week after the House approved his request to increase production of a certain type of submarine built by a local company. The plan would fund the program with $3.1 billion — $600 million more than President Bush had requested.

Earlier in the cycle, several of the more vulnerable Democratic freshmen were the faces of the Democrats’ efforts on top priorities.

Giffords’s fellow Arizona Democratic freshman, Rep. Harry Mitchell, can claim provisions passed in a wounded warriors bill early this year, including some that would protect against a repeat at other military medical facilities of the situation at Walter Reed hospital, where facilities were dilapidated and staff were inattentive.

Reps. Zack Space (D-Ohio) and Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) have been credited with leadership on ethics reform. Space claimed credit for his work on a new gift and travel ban, while Boyda worked to strip pensions of members of Congress who are convicted of Congress-related crimes.

Similarly, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), a young Iraq war veteran elected last year, has been a public face of the Democrats’ thus-far-unsuccessful attempts to end the war in Iraq, while other freshman Democrats have been put out front on issues such as the minimum wage.

The freshmen have been encouraged by their leaders to tout their legislative accomplishments on the campaign trail, which is heating up with the 2007 elections now finished.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Doug Thornell said the freshmen “have been leaders on priorities important to the American people.”

“This stands in stark contrast to the years Republicans were in the majority and were more concerned with auctioning off the House to the highest special interest bidder, turning their backs to the middle class, using wedge issues to divide the country and rubberstamping George Bush’s failed agenda,” he added.

Republicans have sought to tar the new Democratic majority with a “do-nothing Congress” label and have accused the opposition party of not accomplishing anything meaningful in its first year in the majority — a claim that promises to be rehashed repeatedly in 2008.

“This incompetent Democrat[ic]-led Congress hasn’t gotten anything done for the American people, unless you count raising taxes, wasting money on secret earmarks, and offering up budget-busting spending bills,” said a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Betsy Andres.

The GOP pointed to legislative leadership by some of its most vulnerable members this year.

Just this week, Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.), potentially facing his first tough challenge in a decade in Congress from Brooklyn City Councilman Domenic Recchia (D), proposed pulling federal highway funds for states that give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

The issue is a politically charged one in his state, and Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) was forced to pull a proposal for illegal immigrant driver’s licenses this week after a barrage of criticism.

Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) recently passed an amendment that directs $50 million to the Buffer Zone Protection Grants, a program that helps local law enforcement protect high-risk terror targets.

Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) also passed an amendment in June that restored full funding to a program that helps the federal government work with local law enforcement to remove illegal immigrants from the criminal justice system.