Larson in the center of the storm

WASHINGTON–Rep. John Larson, D-1st, was at the center of a political firestorm last week, although you might not have known it from reading the headlines or tuning into latest cable TV news flash.

Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, started the week collecting a torrent of complaints from his fellow House Democrats about a remark by President Barack Obama’s top spokesman on a Sunday talk show, that Democrats could lose their House majority in the upcoming election. One Democrat told Larson the comment would further undermine lawmakers already facing an angry electorate. Another griped that it seemed like the White House was trying to distance the president from the possibility of sweeping losses come November.

Before the end of the week, Larson was at the White House, trying to relay to Obama, delicately but unequivocally, the anger and anxiety that statement had unleashed on Capitol Hill.

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Rep. John Larson at a recent Ways and Means Committee meeting (Deirdre Shesgreen)

It’s no wonder that, when asked the next day to describe his job duties as 4th ranking Democrat in the House, Larson joked that he needed to take a few aspirin first.  Along with the headaches, however, Larson’s job as Democratic Caucus chairman also brings considerable clout.

Although Larson operates mostly out of the political spotlight, his role in the House is far-reaching, from helping to shape the Democrat’s legislative agenda to campaigning and fundraising for vulnerable House candidates to more mundane issues like running caucus meetings. He is part strategist, part battalion commander, and part political therapist.

“He has to keep the caucus together in good times, as well as not-so-good times,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-New Jersey, a close friend of Larson’s.

There’s little question that these are the not-so-good times. Despite, and in some cases because of, passing a series of historic bills, such as the health care overhaul and Wall Street reform, polls show Congress’s approval ratings are in the tank. There’s an anti-incumbent fervor rippling through the electorate, and the Democrats’ control of the House is in jeopardy (the outcry over the White House spokesman’s comment was less about its veracity than about its public airing and political consequences).

Even as many of his Democratic colleagues are facing strong election headwinds, Larson himself faces no primary opponent and he appears poised for an easy general election. And as he tends to the needs of his congressional colleagues, his own powerbase in Washington seems to be gaining strength.

That could easily erode if his party loses the majority, and he and others are ousted in a post-election shake-up. For now, Larson shrugs off questions about whether he will be able to keep a spot in leadership if Republicans sweep to power in the House, saying he’s confident Democrats will maintain control of the chamber.

And he’s working every angle to make sure that’s the case. He is giving out campaign dollars by the thousands, he is criss-crossing the country to stump for members in tough races, and he is helping vulnerable Democrats get their issues on the House agenda.

Of the nearly $1.8 million he has raised so far this cycle for his own re-election, Larson has given more than $600,000 to other candidates and campaign committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and he doled out another $130,000-plus from his leadership PAC. He spent the week-long July 4 recess in Ohio, where he campaigned for six Democratic incumbents.

He worked with a vulnerable freshman Democrat, Gary Peters, to get a proposal on manufacturing tax credits included in a broader jobs bill. And he helped Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, secure defense funding for an extra submarine that will benefit the Electric Boat facility in Groton.

“They way you work with people here, it’s about relationships, and he’s developed relationships with every single member of this caucus,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

Larson took over the caucus chairman job from Rahm Emanuel, a hard-charging take-no-prisoners’ ex-congressman from Chicago who left the House to become Obama’s chief of staff. But where Emanuel was blunt and bare-knuckled, Larson is quiet and cajoling.

“If I were to say night and day, it would be minimizing the differences” between the two men, Pascrell said.

Toby Moffett, a former Connecticut congressman and friend of Larson’s, said the 1st District lawmaker “has a lot more parish priest in him” than Emanuel. While Emanuel didn’t always lend a sympathetic ear, Larson is “someone you can go to and cry on his shoulder and confess to and ask advice of,” Moffett said.

There’s no question that when arm-twisting needs to be done, that job falls to Pelosi or her deputy, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., not to Larson. Given that, it’s difficult to find anyone who is critical of the affable six-term incumbent, even among Republicans.

He’s a “cheerful pugilist,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., Larson’s Republican leadership counterpart. “I like to say that I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it. I think he is a liberal, but he’s not in a bad mood about it.”

Larson says he sees his job as being the “members’ voice” in leadership meetings, not as someone who hammers them for straying on votes or running lackluster campaigns. “Members need to have someone they can go to and vent,” he said. And vent they do, he said, about everything from the stress of political life on their families to the slow elevators in the Capitol to the tough votes they’re being asked to take.

Larson said it’s his role to relay those complaints to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or others who are higher up the leadership ladder than him. Larson said that many Democrats will unload on him about how “screwed up” the leadership is, but if Pelosi walks over, they will suddenly change their tune. “‘Oh hi Nancy, how are you? Saw you on television, you were terrific’,'” Larson says in a high-pitched voice, playing out a typical scene on the House floor when Pelosi joins a conversation, after someone has just unleashed a tirade about the California Democrat to Larson.

Larson says he doesn’t mind delivering the “hellfire and brimstone” messages he gets from the House rank-and-file. And he seems to relish his role as consensus builder-to the point where some say he is not as forceful or as effective as he could be.

On health care, for example, Larson convened 61 caucus meetings to go over the bill in detail. The sessions allowed Democrats to ask questions, voice concerns, and learn, line by line, what was in the legislation.

“We went through, ad nauseum, every section of the bill,” recalls Courtney. “But that was really important …. Nobody could say they did not have an opportunity to express their opinion.”

Larson is doing the same thing now with a series of economic proposals. He has convened two task forces, one on jobs and one on manufacturing, and is asking members to shape a package of bills of those issues, which the leadership will then take to the House floor.

“He’s very inclusive,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, a liberal Democrat from Missouri. Clay says Larson’s approach to crafting legislative policy is “like cooking a gumbo, where you put in all these different ingredients and it comes out tasting really good.”

But with the election less than four months away, Larson’s job of building consensus seems to get harder by the day. The euphoria of the 2008 election is long gone, and Democrats are increasingly divided as they lurch toward November.

Moderate Democrats, for example, are reluctant to vote for new spending measures, such as extending health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers, while liberals are screaming that more needs to be done to help those who have been hard-hit by the economic crisis.

“John’s sitting there with all that going on around him,” said Moffett. “It’s not like he’s worried about his own election, but he’s probably wondering if he’s going to have that gavel when the caucus convenes” after the November elections.

To be sure, given the Democrats’ current political troubles, some say Larson needs to shed his low-profile, coalition-building style for a rougher persona. “Sometimes he tolerates a little bit too much [dissension] because he wants to use a small stick and he wants to speak softly,” said Pascrell. “I tell him sometimes he has too much patience, that even though you are not the first in command, you are still in a command post.”

That character trait could become more problematic if Democrats come back after the election, still in power but with a much narrower majority. “Then those questions [about whether he’s tough enough] will come more into play,” said Moffett.

But others say the lack of hard-edged tactics is what makes Larson so effective. “If he were more strong-armed, then I would just say, ‘Well, I have to avoid him’,” said Rep. Dan Maffei, a Democrat from upstate New York who voted against Larson on a key issue recently-whether to fund an back-up engine made jointly by General Electric and Rolls Royce for the Joint Strike Fighter, in addition to one being made by Connecticut-based Pratt & Whitney.

Maffei, one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, said Larson understood he had to vote his district and did not pressure him, even though Larson had home-state interests and his own clout on the line. “He did not press me, beyond asking me where I was and if more information would be helpful. That’s all,” Maffei said.

Asked if Larson used all the power he had in that showdown, Maffei and others said yes. “The mere fact that we had that vote, I think, shows that he’s not too conciliatory because a lot of people were advocating” against taking up such a politically dicey proposal, which pit two major U.S. companies against each other.

Larson, for his part, said House members will always vote their districts, no matter how much pressure they get from leadership. And of course, giving members such leeway could also help Larson, if Maffei and others win in November and return to support him for a second term as caucus chairman.

“He is building up goodwill,” said Clay, the Missouri Democrat, “good will for when he has to come and ask for something serious.”

Like what? “Like a vote for him in leadership,” Clay said, as he headed off to a reception Larson was throwing for Democrats on the congressional baseball team.