Just like old times for new congressman

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Chellie Pingree is just starting her first bid for re-election as Maine’s 1st District representative to Congress, yet she already has a comfort level that’s striking.

Pingree was prepared to hit the ground running, both from her own experience and the fact that the House of Representatives was unusually receptive to newcomers.

“Nancy Pelosi is very much aware that the freshman class of 2006 was the reason she’s speaker,” Pingree said during an interview in her Portland office during the recent congressional recess.

With Democrats winning the White House two years later, Pelosi also relies on another freshman class, having breakfast with them weekly. Pingree replaced Tom Allen, who stepped down after six terms to run unsuccessfully for the Senate. She was one of two freshmen picked by Pelosi for the Rules Committee – the powerful panel that sets the terms for floor debate.

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“Before the House passes a bill, it has to adopt a rule,” Pingree explains. “It contains all the amendments to be considered, the time for debate – just about everything.” As a Rules Committee member, Pingree frequently leads floor debate and, not coincidentally, is in a position to boost amendments important to Maine. She is the first representative from Maine to sit on the committee in 80 years.

Pingree, who served eight years in the state Senate, including four as majority leader, said that experience was valuable. “Those of us who’ve served in an elected body know all about the late nights, the endless waits for votes, and how to still be ready when the time comes,” she said. “We benefit from the experience of people from every background, but coming from a legislature is an advantage,” she said.

She admits to some frustration over the relatively quick pace in the House and the much more glacial progress of the Senate. “To outsiders, it’s the partisan divide that gets all the attention,” she said. “Inside Congress, House members say that the enemy is the other body” – as representatives traditionally refer to their counterparts.

“The House has passed 290 bills that the Senate has yet to consider,” Pingree said. In other words, if you’re frustrated by the lack of action in Congress, you know where to look.

Still, the atmosphere has changed considerably since passage of health care reform, a cause Pingree championed in Augusta – writing some of the first prescription-drug-pricing laws passed in any state – and has taken up with enthusiasm in Congress.

Asked whether, given that no Republicans signed on to the final bill, it was worth 14 months of waiting, she pointed out that “there are dozens of Republican amendments in the bill, even if they didn’t vote for it.”

As for the possibility that a single-payer system, excluding private insurance companies, would have been a better strategy, she said, “We didn’t have the votes among the Democrats for that.”

While in many ways an epic political achievement, Pingree emphasizes that the new law is an outline for continuing reform rather than a final blueprint. If the nation does move toward a unified, single-payer plan – something she supports – it will probably look more like an expansion of Medicare to younger Americans than to a totally new system, she said.

With health care done, attention has now focused on financial reform, and averting a repeat of the Wall Street meltdown that nearly brought the economy to its knees. Pingree points out, again, that the House passed its bill many months ago, and the Senate is just now debating the issue, though prospects for passage have brightened.

On this one, “a good dose of populism” by voters angered by Wall Street bailouts should help, she said. “It isn’t difficult to explain to voters why we need financial reform,” she said.

Of perhaps even greater interest and significance to Maine is the energy and climate-change legislation that’s also bottled up in the Senate. Prospects don’t seem bright. Potential Republican votes from states like Maine, where such legislation is overwhelmingly popular, are balanced by coal state Democrats wedded to the status quo. But then health reform was widely written off just weeks before it passed.

While Pingree is an exponent of most of President Obama’s domestic agenda, she does have reservations on foreign policy. She was against the troop buildup in Afghanistan, for instance, while also saying the president’s plan should be given time to work.

On the whole, though, there’s no place she’d rather be. “I love being there,” she said. “It’s a wonderful time to be a freshman representative from a state like Maine.”

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