By Jonathan E. Kaplan - 01/17/07 12:00 AM EST
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have breakfast — the third in as many weeks — this morning and each week the House is in session with the 42 freshman Democratic lawmakers who helped the party win the House last November, signaling the practical and symbolic political importance of the new members.
Pelosi, like all Speakers, has used her office to bolster the reelection prospects of the new Democratic majority. She has awarded plum committee assignments to freshman Democrats, including appointing Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) to the Armed Services and House Intelligence committees and four freshmen to the Rules Committee; she has given two new Democrats the chance to respond to President Bush’s weekly Saturday radio addresses; and she also has made sure first-term Democrats spoke at crucial points during debates on the floor and presided over the House in her place as the lower chamber moved to enact its “Six in ’06” agenda.
Pelosi considers the members so central to her success as Speaker that she has given Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) new responsibilities. He has made sure that freshmen spoke about the Democratic agenda at press conferences and, at a staff level, that the Democratic Caucus has met on a regular basis with legislative directors and press secretaries for freshman lawmakers, said a Democratic aide.
Moreover, Dean Aguillen, Pelosi’s director of new-member services, runs the incumbent-retention program from her office, said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi. Aguillen helps freshmen organize their Washington and district offices, hire staff, and navigate the legislative process.
“The Speaker’s office can work with [new members] to develop their district offices and constituent services, make sure they are mentored by senior members and staff to ensure they have a smooth-running district operation,” said former Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Texas). “A district operation may not get the focus that public policy does, but it is so important because it can make or break a congressional career.”
Bentsen noted that members with strong constituent-service records can weather criticism for unpopular votes and a bad political climate.
Aguillen also helps organize staff orientations, meetings with the parliamentarian and discussions about franked mail and the budget, respectively, with Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the Franking Commission and House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.), said Hammill.
Perhaps most importantly, Pelosi and other House leaders can help freshman lawmakers raise money. Many new members have been to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) offices to start fundraising and planning for their reelection in 2008, said another senior Democratic aide.
“Their staffs have been over there, too, to open the lines of communication with DCCC when they know they have a potentially tough election,” the aide said.
Once the Democrats plow their way through their 100-hours agenda this week, Pelosi will encourage committee chairmen to help freshman lawmakers by recognizing their legislative wishes.
Reps. Peter Welch (Vt.), Kathy Castor (Fla.), Michael Arcuri (N.Y.) and Betty Sutton (Ohio), the four freshmen on the Rules Committee, will have the power to directly craft legislation either by approving their own amendments or giving a chance for others to offer amendments, which allows lawmakers the chance to change bills on the House floor.
But the breakfasts with Pelosi are the most visible indication that she and the class of 2006 will succeed or fail together. The two previous breakfasts, both well-attended, were held in a conference room in her office and in a committee room. Amid discussion of the upcoming agenda and issues, including Iraq, the lawmakers could choose from an assortment of fruits, muffins, juices and coffee, said a lawmaker in attendance.
When one legislator asked a campaign-related question, Pelosi said, “We don’t talk about politics under the dome,” referring to rules that ban lawmakers from discussing campaign and campaign-finance issues inside the Capitol.
At today’s breakfast, the freshmen will hear from two senior members. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) will encourage the new members to give one-minute and five-minute speeches on the floor and participate in special orders, the late-night discussions on the House floor where members often are seen on C-SPAN speaking to an empty chamber. Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) will try to get some of the new lawmakers involved in the 30-Something Working Group, said an aide to Pelosi.
Later this week, the freshman class will meet to pick their class officers. Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) is expected to run for president of the class, said his chief of staff. The 13 GOP freshmen elected Rep. Bill Sali (Idaho) as their class president.
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday afternoon briefed new freshman lawmakers from both parties, some of whom won because of their opposition to the war in Iraq, at the Pentagon.