Building relationships helps Wu meet Oregon's needsWASHINGTON, D.C. - Rushing on his way to a vote on a windy and overcast day, Rep. David Wu takes a quick detour to point out one of his favorite statues to a visitor. In front of the U.S. Capitol, a bronze rendering of Ulysses S. Grant and his horse Cincinnati towers over the reflecting pool.
You can almost see the rain pouring down on the Civil War general's hat, sense the tiredness of his legs, imagine a cigar chomped in his mouth, Wu said.
"It's my ideal of an American hero," Wu said of the steadfastness during hard times that is reflected in the statue.
And as Grant resolutely guards the Capitol, Wu digs in to serve his country in a different way, juggling a mix of meetings with constituents, introducing amendments to a job training bill in a congressional committee, and casting his vote for legislation.
Location dictates activitiesActivities in a day in the life of a congressman depend on location. If Wu is in his district in Northwest Oregon, it's a long day with events scheduled back to back in a string of cities.
"Here it's completely different, it's like the campus," Wu said. He was perched on the edge of a red-and-white striped armchair as the Education and the Workforce Committee, on which he serves, met next door. "You have several activities happening at the same time."
At that moment, the committee was debating amendments to a workforce-training bill, there was debate in the House chamber over amendments to the Broadcast Decency Enforcement bill, and Wu was waiting to be called to the House floor for a vote. That morning, he had met with representatives from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Portland Community College and the president of Oregon State University.
This is where his prior experience as a lawyer comes in handy, Wu said. Working with multiple clients taught him how to switch topics rapidly while remaining focused on the task at hand.
Hard choicesWu had to skip a Science Committee meeting that Wednesday to attend the Workforce Committee debates, but science issues remain at the top of his concerns.
As the new ranking Democrat on the Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee, Wu is planning a tsunami public information hearing in Seaside March 22. While the Bush administration has proposed spending $35 million to improve tsunami warning equipment, Wu wants $5 million of that money to be spent on a public education campaign.
"If our trench breaks loose ... hardware will save other people's lives. Education will save ours," he said. It's an example of how government spending can have a big impact on constituents, he added.
With limited time in the day, "There are always hard choices to be made" in deciding which issues to focus on, Wu said. About 70 percent of his time is responding to constituents needs and concerns.
"It's the other 20 to 30 percent that you can allocate to what you think is important to your constituents, the nation, and your own goals and passions."
As he was discussing one of his passions, the transformation of scientific research into technology people can use, bells started going off from all corners.
Time to voteThe first bell was from the clock on the wall, which like many clocks in the building is equipped with a series of white and red lights that count down to votes. Then Wu's beeper went off, telling him that the vote for the broadcast bill was starting. Representatives filed out from their offices and across the street to the south side of the Capitol building, winding their way through the halls, up elevators marked "Members Only," and into the chamber.
Voting is done electronically; each representative has a card that they slip into a machine, then vote either Yea, Nay, or Present. Pushing the Present button is often seen as a cop-out, Wu said, but representatives sometimes do it to protest a bill.
The members of Congress milled around the floor as an electronic counter kept track of the votes. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement bill passed easily, with a 389-38 vote (Wu voted in favor).
In the hall afterwards, Wu introduced himself to a freshman congressman that he hadn't met before. The fourth-term Democrat gave his new colleague an impromptu tour of a hidden aspect of the Capital - he pointed out a panel behind a window where Elvis supposedly signed the wall. Wu admitted that he can't see the autograph, but said the security guards told him it was there (and the security guards know everything about the building).
Amending ideasAfter hopping on an underground mini-train back to the House office buildings, Wu was back in his seat at the Education and the Workforce committee meeting. Democrats were trying to introduce an amendment that would get rid of part of the bill that they felt discriminates against people on the basis of religion.
The debate continued for well over an hour before it was put to a vote. Absent committee members popped their head in to record their vote, then returned to the other meetings vying for their attention. All the Republicans, who are in the majority, voted against the amendment; all the Democrats voted for it.
"When you're in the minority you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. I've learned that all my life," Wu said.
Then it was time for him to introduce his amendment. The bill allocated $1.25 billion in grants for workforce training, with $250 million of that reserved for challenge grants and the rest distributed as formula grants. But Wu wants all the money to be in formula grants, which he said brings more stability and certainty to the receiving groups.
"It is extremely important that workforce training folks can count on their allocations," Wu told the committee.
But the committee chairman, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that he believes challenge grants can be helpful. And in fact, Wu had been part of discussions to increase the formula grants in the equation from $750 million to $1 billion.
Wu said he would be willing to withdraw the amendment if Boehner would agree to continue the discussions about the division of grant money.
"My door is always open, I'll be happy to continue to chat with my friend from Oregon," Boehner replied.
"In essence, we've already won by getting the full billion, we're just going for 110 percent now," Wu said later with a smile.
And so with the amendment shelved, but the discussion of grants ongoing, Wu left the committee meeting.
He headed for the office of another Democratic congressman, whom he said had much more influence with the House leadership many people think.
It's a matter of building relationships with other members of Congress, he said, and keeping the appropriations money flowing into a distant corner of the country in Northwest Oregon.