By Walter Alarkon - 12/18/09 11:00 AM EST
Rep. Peter DeFazio’s phone rang. On the other end was Rahm Emanuel.
The White House chief of staff last month expressed frustration with DeFazio’s resignation calls for President Barack Obama’s top two economic aides — Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House chief economist Larry Summers — and appealed for cooperation, according to DeFazio.
“Rahm does not yell at me,” DeFazio said, “because he knows that I yell back.”
Others are learning that DeFazio, who has served in the House since 1987 and describes himself as a “progressive populist,” is not easily intimidated. He has emerged in recent months as one of the most vocal liberal critics of the Obama administration, blasting the president’s team for not getting tough enough with Wall Street. He’s also taken on his own party for failing to move left-leaning legislation through the Congress.
Personal calls from Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former Vice President Al Gore couldn’t persuade him to vote for the Speaker’s climate change bill. He also opposed the $787 billion stimulus, citing concerns that only 7 percent was devoted to infrastructure spending.
DeFazio was one of only two Democrats to vote against those measures and the $700 billion bank bailout. (The other was Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) a Blue Dog conservative.)
Yet he’s also a pro-gun Democrat who has a B rating from the National Rifle Association.
“I would have less of a voice and I would have less respect if I voted for things I didn’t believe in because of pressure from the leadership,” DeFazio told The Hill in an interview.
Obama himself has taken notice.
“Don’t think we’re not keeping score, brother,” Obama told DeFazio during a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, according to members afterward.
But poking a stick at those in power is what DeFazio does.
He gives partial credit for his special brand of liberalism to having worked at a country club as a teenager. Each summer, his father ran a camp for troubled inner-city kids on Cape Cod, where they caddied for golfers at a country club. DeFazio would work alongside the kids.
“They were servants for the rich, as was I,” he said. “I shagged golf balls for rich people. I carried golf clubs for rich people, and I learned very early on, when I was pretty young, that this was a group of people that had nothing special to offer to me or to society.”
His populism has played well back home. DeFazio won his 2008 election with 82 percent of the vote, even though his district isn’t overwhelmingly Democratic. Obama won it by 11 percentage points, but President George W. Bush won nearly as many votes as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.
DeFazio has been a leading liberal voice complaining that the Democratic Congress and White House have failed to capitalize on significant victories in last year’s elections. His latest target is the Senate, where he says Democrats’ struggle to move healthcare legislation is preventing the Congress from sending a job-creation bill to the president’s desk. With the unemployment rate at 10 percent, House Democrats see jobs as the No. 1 campaign issue heading into the midterm election year.
“It’s just incredible frustration,” DeFazio said. “The killing ground of the Senate is ultimately, potentially, the killing ground of the Democratic Party.”
DeFazio and other House Democrats led what he called a “revolt” at a caucus meeting several weeks ago. Though Democratic leaders called the meeting to discuss the president’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, rank-and-file members began talking instead about jobs.
DeFazio stood up and called for attaching a new job-creation bill to the annual defense-spending measure, which typically gets bipartisan support and is considered must-pass legislation. His speech and others in favor of a new jobs bill drew cheers from colleagues, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.).
DeFazio has spent most of his time over the past year pushing for the $500 billion, six-year transportation reauthorization bill. DeFazio, the chairman of the House Highways and Transit subcommittee, has argued infrastructure could lead to far more jobs and have a much more lasting impact than tax cuts or other stimulus spending. While Pelosi has thrown her support behind the bill, sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), the Senate and the White House, reluctant to raise the gas tax or other levies to pay for the bill, have said that it should be taken up next year.
DeFazio wants to tax Wall Street to help pay for the programs. Specifically, he wants a tax on financial transactions, which economists have said could generate $150 billion. Though Geithner has opposed it, DeFazio is holding out hope that Obama will find ways to get tougher on Wall Street.
He praised the president this week for dialing up his criticism of Wall Street bankers and the bonuses they’re expected to receive, just months after receiving billions in federal bailout dollars.
“That was one good speech by the president, but he’s got to mean it, he’s got to live it, he’s got to do it every day,” DeFazio said. “And these are tough people; these are the most powerful people in the world. They seem to control a majority of his economic team.”