Freshmen Taking Lead on Popular Bills

House Democrats were eyeing the history books in November when they voted for a sweeping health care overhaul that carried the name of the chamber’s longest-serving member, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Now looking ahead to potentially steep midterm losses while their top priority founders, the majority is set to vote as soon as next week on a bite-sized stab at reform authored by two of its newest members, freshman Reps. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.) and Tom Perriello (D-Va.).

The development reflects a broader strategic shift by House Democrats as they move on to election-year footing. With their hardest legislative lifts behind them, leaders and chairmen are now focused on helping their most vulnerable incumbents notch smaller-scale wins to tout on the campaign trail.

“There will be more room and more time for more narrowly focused bills that are put forward by an individual Member rather than larger, comprehensive bills that go through the whole process that are owned by the chairmen or the leadership,” one Democratic leadership aide said.

And leaders aren’t just eyeing stand-alone bills. Seemingly parochial measures that may not make headlines inside the Beltway are proving inviting vehicles for voter-friendly amendments that burnish the stock of their politically vulnerable authors.

Earlier this month, aides to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) worked with the staff of the Science and Technology Committee to identify changes that endangered incumbents could offer to a measure beefing up cybersecurity standards. Among them: an amendment from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) emphasizing that cybersecurity education must include “children and young adults,” and one from Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio) promoting scholarship support for high school and community college students who enter cybersecurity-related fields.

“Working for a Member who has a tough seat, it makes you more sensitive to needs of Members who have tough seats,” said Louis Finkel, chief of staff to Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who is retiring. “So on the cybersecurity bill, we worked with them to identify issues to talk about — protecting children, protecting finances — giving them ways to contribute and ways to communicate that back home.”

To be sure, endangered Democratic incumbents aren’t starting from scratch, having racked up a series of smaller-scale wins last year that will help them make their case to voters. And other leadership offices — namely the member services operation run out of the office of Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) — have helped pair Democrats facing uphill re-election fights with those bills. The wildly popular Cash for Clunkers program last summer, for example, was sponsored by Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), who is running for a third term.

But the specter of a midterm bloodbath that could cost Democrats their majority has focused the attention of chairmen on the need to promote the work of those lowest on their risers — lest they lose their gavels. “The chairmen are a hell of a lot more responsive than they were a year ago,” one senior Democratic aide said. “We’ve been very aggressively pushing them, and they’re scared now, so they’re responding.”

An intelligence reauthorization measure expected on the floor soon after the House returns from the Presidents Day recess will likely feature a number of amendments from vulnerable “Frontline” Democrats, leadership sources said. And if Democratic leaders continue to break off the most popular pieces of their health care overhaul while they try to forge a comprehensive package with their Senate counterparts, endangered Democrats will likely continue to take the lead.

“All along, the strategy has been to help these guys show they could get things done in Washington and fix problems back home,” another leadership aide said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recognized that she has tried harder than her predecessors to bring newer Members forward on key pieces of legislation. But she framed the effort as part of “that constant reinvigoration that our founders had — that even though we’re ready with some ideas, that fresh enthusiasm helps put over the top.”

Likewise, Pelosi described the bill that Perriello and Markey are expected to drop — repealing the 65-year-old antitrust exemption that health insurance companies enjoy — as the product of “the full weight and knowledge of what has gone before, with the new fresh enthusiasm as to what the American people are thinking on this subject.”

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