On the rebound

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 2, 2011

The Democrats' package, which also calls for infrastructure improvements and a national manufacturing strategy, is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled House, of course. But in the short term, Cicilline gets to visit local manufacturers — 14 in the last six months — and stand next to Hoyer at "Make it in America" press conferences. And in the medium- and long-term, the Congressman's signature issue could have some legs.

Manufacturing has been a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy economy. And as Cicilline himself points out, soaring Chinese wages and stubbornly high fuel costs are making domestic manufacturing — at least the high-tech, high-skill variety best suited to American soil — a bit more appealing.

Moreover, "industrial policy" — long verboten in a culture that deems economic planning best left to the private sector — is back in vogue in Washington, at least on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Party leaders argue that, with our competitors making big public-sector investments in technology and infrastructure, the United States has to do the same. Hence, the Obama Administration's bets on battery technology and clean energy.

Hoyer, in an interview with the Phoenix, said the "Make it in America" package will be at the top of the agenda if the Democrats regain control of the House next year.

There are risks in this strategy, of course. The high-profile flop of Solyndra, the solar power company touted by President Obama, has been a major embarrassment. And technological advances mean the "new economy" factories championed by Cicilline — if they get off the ground at all — will not produce as many jobs as his constituents might expect.

The expectations game could mean trouble, too, for the Congressman's other major first-term effort, the Common Ground caucus — a bi-partisan social club he started with freshman Republican Congresswoman Nan Hayworth of New York in a bid to soften Washington's hard-edged partisanship.

I spoke with Cicilline just hours before the caucus's first gathering, at Capitol Hill's World War II-era Top of the Hill restaurant, and he was predicting about 20 members of the House would show up. There were, in the end, just 11 — eight of them Democrats.

But the effort, like his "Made in America" push, is exquisitely timed to the moment; public disgust with the parties' failure to compromise has never been so pronounced.

Indeed, Cicilline, as one Washington insider pointed out, has found a way to insert himself into several of the hot-button issues of the day: touring senior centers to denounce GOP efforts to "end Medicare as we know it," penning a letter to the president asking for a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan, and proposing a ban on debit card fees after Bank of America announced plans — since dropped — for a $5 monthly charge.

His message, in the end, doesn't stray far from Democratic talking points. But his aggressiveness and political gifts have turned it into something more.

Not bad for a freshman Congressman whose chief accomplishments include co-sponsorship of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act.


IN WASHINGTON

Cicilline, like most members of Congress these days, is home in the district every weekend. So his one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill is still spare, he says. A couch, a bed, and not much else.

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