Democrats lay '08 groundwork

12 freshmen in Congress singled out for orientation aimed at retaining seats

December 22, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

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WASHINGTON --When newly elected Democratic members of Congress showed up here last month, they were given the traditional orientation, civic-minded lessons on how Congress works, tours of the Capitol and receptions with their new colleagues and leaders.

But about 12 were singled out for a type of orientation that has continued through this month.

The "incumbent retention program," a detailed plan worked out after the November election swept Democrats into power in Congress, is aimed at fortifying the most politically shaky with plum committee assignments, prized bill sponsorships and an early start on fundraising, all in preparation for their 2008 re-election campaigns.

The 110th Congress has not been sworn into office, but, in a measure of the determination not to surrender the majority in two years, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker, has instructed aides to begin acting immediately to help Democrats who won by small margins in districts where President Bush did well in 2004 or who coasted in because their opponents were mired by scandal.

Those new members are being given coveted spots on high-profile committees, in particular the Financial Services Committee, a magnet for campaign contributions, and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a platform from which to send money for projects back home.

Their names will be affixed as co-sponsors atop big-ticket measures on ethics and stem-cell research, which are to be voted on in the first 100 hours of the new Congress, Democratic leaders said.

The 12 freshmen have attended orientation sessions on topics such as delivering constituent services and getting their names into local newspapers regularly.

The sessions were led by members of Congress who have won in tough districts, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Several said they were being told that given a choice between voting the party position and casting a vote that would help them in their districts, they should feel free to retreat from the Democratic line.

"Everybody has a responsibility to help these guys - in their districts, on their votes, on their legislation - make sure they come back," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who preceded Van Hollen as head of the Democrats' campaign committee and is now fourth in the House Democratic leadership.

The concern is not merely theoretical. In Connecticut, Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who lost his seat to Joe Courtney, a Democrat, by fewer than 100 votes, has signaled that he will try to win back the seat in 2008.

Ron Klein, a Florida Democrat who defeated E. Clay Shaw Jr., a 13-term Republican incumbent, said the tenuousness of his standing, and the need to start preparing, had been drilled into him since he arrived in Washington.

"You're running in two years," Klein said. "The campaign starts now, and you need to be prepared. We're not wasting time."

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