Leaders want House freshmen to stay more on message

House leaders would like their freshman lawmakers to stay a little bit more on-message.

Democratic leadership staffers scolded freshman chiefs of staff Monday for blindsiding House leaders with a letter protesting the tax on the wealthy designed to pay for President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

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“They said that letters like this don’t help anybody,” said a freshman Democratic aide.

A bare majority of the Democratic freshman class, 21 of 39, signed the letter circulated by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) opposing their leadership’s plan to raise taxes to finance a healthcare overhaul. Another signer, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), is a second-term lawmaker.

It became one of the starkest signs of Democratic revolt against a healthcare bill that Pelosi had rolled out triumphantly days before.

Leadership aides acknowledge that they expressed irritation Monday that House leaders felt like they didn’t get enough notice about Polis’s letter. But they stressed they had no problems with members expressing their opinion.

“We strongly encourage our new members to make their concerns heard, including sending letters or speaking up at meetings,” said Doug Thornell, spokesman for Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). “This will continue. As we have seen this entire Congress, they are independent voices for their districts, so at times they will take a different approach to solving a problem. At the end of the day we all share same the goal of reforming our broken healthcare system.”

Van Hollen’s staff hosts the meeting for freshman chiefs of staff. It is also attended by staff from the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the White House.

But staffers for freshmen said they did give leaders a heads-up about their concerns and the letter. And they say freshmen want the bill to slow down.

“There needs to be some documentation of these concerns,” said a staffer for another freshman lawmaker. “If people go back in August with a bill that was rushed through, you won’t be able to go to an event without people screaming, ‘You didn’t read the bill,’ even if you did.”

Lara Cottingham, spokeswoman for Polis, said he has no problems with the way leadership has dealt with his concerns.

“The congressman is working with leadership to get the best bill possible,” Cottingham said.

Polis’s letter said that the income surtax on the wealthy would place an undue burden on small businesses, some of which pay taxes in the same way as an individual. Polis voted against the plan at the Education and Labor Committee markup Friday as a protest against the tax.

The letter itself did not threaten that its signers would vote against the bill. Instead, it asks for a different source of money to be found, and says more cost savings should be secured so that less money is needed.

Pelosi has already started moving in that direction. At her weekly news conference Thursday, she said she thought the surtax on the wealthy could be shrunk by finding additional cost savings. A Pelosi aide said she would prefer the tax hit only individuals making over $500,000 and families making more than $1 million.

The original proposal would have imposed the surtax on individuals making over $280,000 and families making more than $350,000.