By JILLIAN JORGENSEN
Special to the Union Leader
Monday, Feb. 9, 2009
WASHINGTON – In the vestibule of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s temporary Senate office, things can get pretty crowded when visitors come to call. Recently as she walked through the door she ran into a group of constituents from New Hampshire awaiting a meeting with a legislative aide.
The “swing suite,” as Shaheen has called it, was full of ringing telephones, cluttered desks and busy staff members. Shaheen, like other freshmen senators, is waiting to get her permanent assignment.
She stopped in the middle of the bustling office to fill in the visitors about what had happened on the floor of the Senate the night before.
“I hate to interrupt, but we’ve got to get you to a foreign relations hearing,” an aide told the senator.
She said goodbye and walked out into the chilly hallway of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, heading toward the elevators reserved for senators. “I never use it,” Shaheen said inside the bright blue elevator. “It takes too long to get here.” She prefers to take the stairs. With a non-stop workday and votes that can last until late in the night, you must be creative about making time for exercise.
Shaheen is the first New Hampshire woman to hold a United States Senate seat, the first Democrat elected to the seat in 30 years, and the first American woman elected as both governor and senator. If Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., is confirmed as commerce secretary, Shaheen will go from the state’s junior to senior senator after just weeks in office.
Desks of honor
“It’s an honor to serve the people of New Hampshire as a U.S. senator, no matter my seniority,” Shaheen said. “It would be nice if Judd Gregg’s years of Senate experience and seat on the Appropriations Committee came along with the bargain, but the privilege of sitting at the famed Daniel Webster desk on the Senate floor will do for now.” The ornate desk now used by Gregg once belonged to the granite state’s Webster, one of the Senate’s greatest orators.
Shaheen’s current desk is not bad, either: it belonged to President Barack Obama during his four years in the Senate.
“The tradition is for senators to carve their names in the desk,” she said. His is inside.
Shaheen defeated Sen. John E. Sununu, a Republican, in November, arriving in Washington in time for the inauguration of a new president and the debate over a faltering economy.
“People clearly voted for a new direction for the country, but that brings with it responsibility “” responsibility to address the high expectations that people have for things to change,” she said.
The wall behind her office desk features one framed memento: a schematic drawing titled “Paper Manufacture from Preparation to Paper Machine,” a gift she received while governor from workers at mills in Berlin and Gorham.
“It means a lot to me, because it was something we worked so hard to try and get done, and we were able to put so many people back to work,” she said.
The paper mill in Berlin, which many New Hampshire politicians had endeavored to save as it and the mill in Gorham experienced financial problems over the last decade, closed for good in 2006.
Hopes for stimulus package
Putting people back to work is what Shaheen hopes the president’s proposed stimulus package will do. She said the money must be spent “not only more effectively, but more competently” than the funds allocated for the financial bailout last year.
“I think it speaks to the need to look very carefully at how money is going to be spent, and in the case of the economic package, to look at doing everything possible to ensure that the dollars that are going to be spent are going to be spent to actually do what we want them to do,” she said.
She said that in a troubled economy, tax credits for businesses designed to create jobs may not work as intended.
“What we’re seeing businesses and families do, quite frankly, is hold on to their money because they’re worried about the economic climate,” she said.
“Tax cuts aren’t necessarily what’s going to get the economy moving again, and tax credits may not necessarily be what’s going to do it either. It’s got to be a combination,” she added.
While Shaheen may be fully briefed on matters of politics and policy, Senate rules, customs and dynamics may be harder to master.
Sununu said it will take time for someone with executive experience to become familiar with working in a legislative body.
“The U.S. Senate has a set of rules that is unique, and at times indescribable,” Sununu said. “For any new member, it takes a lot of patience to understand the rules and procedures for bringing forward legislation and amendments on the floor, in order to increase your likelihood for success when you’re advocating for something important to your state.” Shaheen said she hoped her assignment to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee would provide the opportunity to address global warming, national security and job creation.
Shaheen said she is interested in the economic and environmental benefits of building a “new, smart” energy transition grid, pointing to the jobs created during previous infrastructure investments, such as the interstate highway system.
“How do we take advantage of the renewable biomass energies in the North Country that we want to get down to the southern part of the state and to New England?” she added.
“We need to upgrade the transmission system to do that.” Meanwhile, the national economy also faces long-term problems, like overworked entitlement programs and the national deficit.
“We need to start now and develop a plan for how we’re going to address the debt that the country is in, and the increasing deficit,” she said.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said Shaheen was in a better position than many other new senators: she is a member of the majority party, has extensive political experience, and hails from a state that is politically important because of its early primary.
“She’s pretty well-known, and she’s got some good committee slots,” he said.
“She’s in a pretty good condition to do things right away.” In addition to Energy, Shaheen will serve on the Foreign Relations Committee and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.
The Senate is driven by seniority, Smith said, and with the departure of Gregg, who has been in the Senate since 1993, the state is losing some of its seniority clout.
Shaheen said health care reform will be another priority for her. Last month, she voted for the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“If we can provide health care to 4 million more people through the expansion of children’s health insurance, that’s a very good start,” she said. “Obviously, we have a lot of other work to do in that area. We’ve got to look at addressing the cost of health care as well as expanding access.”
Because the nation spends so much on health care, Shaheen said it should not be thought of as an entirely separate issue.
“I think we’ve got a lot of work to do, but I don’t think we can throw up our hands and say, ‘We can’t address this issue because we’re trying to address the economy at the same time.’ It’s all part of the same piece,” she said.