Travels in Iowa with a Freshman Congressman

Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Iowa, has made Iraq his main focus since taking office in January. As Braley visits small towns in his district, the war is much on the mind of his constituents, but other issues emerge as well.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Members of Congress have been back in their home states all week, meeting with constituents. It was their chance to hear first-hand how folks are reacting to congressional debate over their resolution opposing President Bush's troop surge in Iraq.

One such member is freshman Democrat Bruce Braley, from eastern Iowa's first District. NPR's David Greene followed his campaign for us last year and joins us now to talk about Braley's first few weeks in Congress and his big trip back home.

Welcome, David.

DAVID GREENE: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now like so many of the newly-elected freshman, Bruce Braley had made Iraq central to his campaign. What does he say about the House vote against the surge?

GREENE: Well he says it was a very special moment for him. You know, being part of that debate was - it was big. Braley had staked out a very anti-war position early in his campaign. He was talking about cutting funding for troops long before his fellow Democrats were. And there were actually a lot of pundits out in Iowa who said there was no way he could win with a position like that in his district, because it was a district long held by Republicans. So it had to be a satisfying moment after the victory to come out on the House floor and get his five minutes to speak. Let's take a listen.

Representative BRUCE BRALEY (Democrat, Iowa): The president truly stands alone with a strategy that his own generals, key Republicans, and the American people oppose. The time is long overdue for the people's House to reassert its rightful place in our constitutional system of checks and balances.

MONTAGNE: So there he was, Bruce Braley on the House floor, and then again you were with him in his district this week. Iraq still a hot topic, I imagine.

GREENE: Well actually, you know Renee, I didn't know what to expect, because Braley was home for a week. He was spending a day driving around some of the really small towns in his district. And the point of the trip was for him to meet mayors and other local officials and to see what the burning issues were in their own communities and how he might be able to help them. He was racing from town to town in his district, driving in his district manager's car.

Rep. BRALEY: You can tell just by looking from side to side on the road as we're traveling along what's been happening to the farmland in preparation for this spring's planting.

GREENE: You can tell Braley enjoys representing the district and he's already thinking about how he'll hang on to the job. He admitted first-term members are vulnerable because they have such little name recognition. But he says he's tried to ignore Republicans who say this class of freshman Democrats will be back out the door soon.

Rep. BRALEY: The day after the election I happened to turn on CNN and I saw Tom DeLay on there. And he was issuing a warning that a lot of the new members who were Democrats had better enjoy it because they were going to be one-term members. And I got a picture of Tom DeLay and I put that direct quote on it and I gave it to every member of my freshman class who are Democrats and I said -keep this on your desk and look at it every day for the motivation you need to do the constituent service that's going to get you reelected and back here and prove that he was wrong.

GREENE: To do some of his own constituent service, Braley rolled into the town of Elkader. It's set in the middle of dairy farm country in northeast Iowa; population around 1,500.

(Soundbite of noises inside a grocery store)

Representative BRALEY: There you are - Iowa's oldest family-owned grocery store; since 1867.

GREENE: What's the name of it?

Rep. BRALEY: Wilke's.

(Soundbite of many people speaking)

GREENE: Braley sat down with a few dozen local officials and others inside the town library.

Rep. BRALEY: Everybody gather around, there's plenty of chairs here.

GREENE: And he said he was there to introduce himself and his staff to Elkader and Clayton County.

Rep. BRALEY: Our goal is to be present here in Clayton County three times a month if we can be.

GREENE: But not long into the meeting, John Maehl stood up in the front row and said he wanted to talk about some reports he read from Washington about injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan being housed in poor conditions at a military hospital.

Mr. JOHN MAEHL (Elkader, Iowa): There's an article in The Washington Post on the Walter Reed Hospital.

Rep. BRALEY: Yes.

MR. MAIHL: And you're our head man there supposedly, now.

Rep. BRALEY: Yes.

Mr. MAIHL: And when is that going to be corrected and why did it ever get to happen? I know it wasn't on your watch, but…

Rep. BRALEY: Well, it's something I'm very concerned about. My brother works at the VA hospital in Knoxville, Iowa.

GREENE: Braley said he would do anything he could to fix the problems at Walter Reed. But the questions didn't get easier in Elkader.

Frank Phippen said he wanted to talk about Iraq. He said he's worried that if Democrats put restrictions on how President Bush can use the troops, it may look like Democrats aren't supporting the military.

Mr. FRANK PHIPPEN (Elkader, Iowa): That's the way it's going to be portrayed, so either get them out or back away and support them full-tilt.

GREENE: Braley explained one proposal from Democrat John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

Rep. BRALEY: What Congressman Murtha's proposal says is that we don't send them over there unless they have the necessary training, they have the necessary equipment, and we're not going to extend their tours of duty unless they have the opportunity for the release…

Mr. PHIPPEN: That will be seen as micro-managing the war.

GREENE: Micro-managing, Phippen was saying, could put troops in danger.

After the meeting I caught up with Phippen. He said he's always been against the war, but that taking a middle ground is the worst option.

Mr. PHIPPEN: If we vote to say bring them home, then support it. But if we start doing this little nitpicking stuff, no. No. You can't do it.

GREENE: Even if Braley supports the Murtha proposal, Phippen said he'll still stand by his congressman, at least for now.

Mr. PHIPPEN: He's new, he's young, he's energetic. He'll do fine.

GREENE: How long until you hold him accountable?

Mr. PHIPPEN: Oh, well heavens, he should have at least four to six years. You know I think the old saying that absolute power absolutely corrupts is true, you know? Republicans were fine for the first few years and then they went overboard, didn't they?

GREENE: Back on the road, I asked Braley how he convinces someone like Phippen that he's not nitpicking.

Rep. BRALEY: I think that what I would tell Frank and anybody else with similar concerns is there's a difference between nitpicking and giving the president a blank check.

GREENE: And Braley said that what he supports isn't nitpicking at all. It's sending President Bush a message.

Rep. BRALEY: We cannot shirk our responsibility to have meaningful discussions about how we can get him to the table to start shifting that policy, including ways that we can place limitations on how he uses those troops in battle.

MONTAGNE: We've been listening to NPR's David Greene. And he's back now from Iowa. And David, are we going to see Democrats like Bruce Braley go beyond sending messages to the president and start trying to take concrete steps to bring those troops back home?

GREENE: Well I don't think we know yet. And even if Democrats try to do that, it's not clear what they can actually do. There are a lot of constitutional questions about whether Congress can tie the president's hands during a war. But I think one thing we saw here: any battle over cutting funding for troops, like we're probably going to see, it's going to be a political minefield for Democrats.

MONTAGNE: And was Braley surprised by the focus on Iraq?

GREENE: Well, I should be careful, Renee, because many other local issues did come up on this trip. I mean, from ethanol to highway funding. So it wasn't just Iraq. But no, Braley said he wasn't surprised that Iraq came up several times at several stops, especially in his state, because he said presidential candidates for 2008 have been spending a lot of time tromping across Iowa already, and voters are just getting used to talking about national politics.

MONTAGNE: Well I'm guessing you actually ask him. Does Bruce Braley have a favorite yet in his party's nomination for '08?

GREENE: I did ask him, and he had no desire to answer. But he did speak to one point. There's been all this talk recently of how the living room politics of Iowa are dying out. That with all these celebrity candidates this year - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain - all coming through the state, these events have grown so big you're really losing the personal contact. And I asked Braley if that's the case, and he said he doesn't see living room politics dying yet. He said just look back at 2004. Howard Dean, who was drawing crowds and media attention lost in the Democratic caucuses. Who won? It was John Kerry, who put more emphasis on smaller gatherings and on that old-fashioned organization. So Braley said there is a lesson there for the candidates right now.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks again.

GREENE: My pleasure, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's David Greene.

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