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Brown-Waite builds her profile in Washington

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite continued to pursue a high profile in Congress last week, snagging a key committee assignment and co-sponsoring a Republican priority bill.

The Brooksville Republican, who won a reputation as an aggressive go-getter during her campaign for office, gained a seat on the House Budget Committee just as lawmakers begin to review the president's proposals, considered radical by some, to alter the government's fiscal policy.

The committee, which has had freshman members before, is not as prestigious as the tax-writing Ways and Means or the spending Appropriations committees. But it often is seen as a training ground for those two powerful panels.

"She's recognized that we're going to have to go into deficit spending for a short while," spokeswoman Caryn McLeod said. "She sees her role on the committee as to make the tough decisions."

Brown-Waite also joined 68 colleagues in submitting a bill to overhaul the nation's medical liability insurance system.

"The threat of being needlessly sued is causing Florida to lose too many qualified doctors, who abandon the practice of medicine or leave the state to practice elsewhere, because of the extremely high costs of medical malpractice insurance," Brown-Waite said in a prepared statement. "Runaway Jury is not just the title of a John Grisham novel; it's a reality in too many hospitals in Florida and around the nation."

Brown-Waite has gained attention by actively seeking it, letting leaders know she wants to participate in the big issues, McLeod said. As a result, when spots come open, as one did recently on the Budget Committee, her name gets mentioned, McLeod said.

Political observers said Brown-Waite, who came to Washington with the distinction as one of just four who ousted an incumbent in November, has taken full advantage of the party leadership's desire to keep her district in the Republican column.

Brown-Waite scraped by five-term incumbent Karen Thurman, a Dunnellon Democrat, with a margin of just a few thousand votes. She did not win 50 percent of all ballots cast.

Before she even took the oath of office, some publications had targeted her as vulnerable in 2004.

To counter that, the GOP leadership initially gave Brown-Waite seats on two committees with high interest to her constituents -- Veterans Affairs and Financial Services.

If a member of Congress gets committees important to her district, it usually means party leaders are thinking about that member's future, said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist.

"The quality of her assignments is very good," MacManus said of Brown-Waite.

Yet it is difficult to say whether Brown-Waite has made significant strides beyond other freshmen in the House.

"It's hard breaking out in the House in the first place," said Amy Walter, House editor for the Washington-based Cook Political Report. "There are 434 other people who would like to see their names in lights, too."

All of the freshman members are jockeying for positions on committees they think will best serve their district and, ultimately, help get them re-elected, said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report.

Walter figured Brown-Waite's status from having defeated an incumbent has gained her points. Her committees, especially Veterans Affairs, will serve Brown-Waite well as she seeks continued support, Walter said.

Now it's up to Brown-Waite to rise or fall on her own, she said.

So far, MacManus said, Brown-Waite has done many things right. Perhaps most important, she said, Brown-Waite has been back in the district frequently, meeting with groups and hearing their concerns.

"One thing that is dangerous is getting sucked into things in Washington and forgetting about the people back home," MacManus said.

Getting on board with the Republican effort to reform medical malpractice insurance can also benefit Brown-Waite, as can her presence on the Budget Committee as the nation seeks solutions for economic hard times.

But what seems positive now could prove troublesome later on, primarily because Florida's 5th Congressional District is fairly evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters.

"Here's the dilemma people get into," MacManus said. "Do you go lockstep with your party? Or lockstep with your district? It's very difficult to do both."

The true test of Brown-Waite's power will come in less than two years, Walter said.

"The critical time for a new member is their first re-election campaign," she said. "That's the toughest hurdle to climb."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education and politics in Hernando County. He can be reached at (352) 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

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