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Freshman Democrat Wielding Reform Power

By Washington Times, The Washington Times - August 23, 2009

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.

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