Freshman Wielding Reform Power; Virginia's Tom Perriello Gets Earful, and Asks to Hear More

Article excerpt

Byline: Joseph Curl, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. -- Rep. Tom Perriello is a no.

Even though he's a freshman Democrat in Congress, a mere seven months into office, he's a no. And even though he won by a whisker - 727 votes - in a rural central and Southside Virginia congressional district, he's still a no.

What's unusual is that the babyfaced congressman in the scuffed-up work boots holding court in a small gymnasium on Saturday afternoon is wielding some hefty clout.

I joined with other freshmen to state our fear that if there's an attempt to bring this up [the health care reform bill] before August, we'd all be nos across the board, he told Democratic leaders in Congress. If I didn't get re-elected, I could live with that.

The freshmen's move may have played a part in what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did in late July. She tabled the reform bill until at least September, giving dozens of skittish Democrats an opportunity to return home to take the pulse in their districts during their August recess.

While some leading Democrats have not held town-hall meetings, the 34-year-old Mr. Perriello - a libertarian at heart who says he became a Democrat basically when I decided to run - says he's on pace to hold more town-hall meetings on health care than any other member of Congress - 21 in all by the time Congress returns next month.

What he's hearing is - well, everything.

Consensus? he says with a laugh. There's no consensus, anywhere. Having already held 14 town halls across his sprawling district, he says the input he's received from more than 3,000 people breaks down into three basic categories.

From the right, they're concerned about the role of government; from the left, it's corporate responsibility; and from the middle, it's the cost, he said Saturday as he arrived at a Southside Virginia Community College campus.

The August recess has turned into a high-wire act for congressional Democrats. The party is struggling to hang on to its liberal base, which makes the public health care option crucial, while also trying to hang on to seats the party has picked up over the last two election cycles.

Liberal activist groups such as MoveOn.org have publicly denounced skeptical Democratic lawmakers, but town halls across the country have brought out fierce lobbying by conservative constituents, who have been well organized and very vocal.

Mr. Perriello has seen it all during his vacation. He's sat through 5 1/2-hour town halls, some jammed with 1,200 people, but his eyes lit up just a bit when he saw his afternoon crowd for Saturday: just 25 or so, all packed near the microphone in the front section of 240 chairs. (The event was relocated 48 hours before it began, leading some to speculate that some didn't know the new location. …