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Washington - Democratic Congressman Joe Courtney stood on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last week and faced 446 brown leather seats - nearly all of them empty.
It was morning-hour debate in the chamber, the period when individual lawmakers may speak for up to five minutes on any topic. Member attendance is usually sparse, although the speeches are broadcast live over C-SPAN. On this morning, the visitors' gallery held a school group of boys and girls in blue and white uniforms and a dozen or so tourists in shorts.
They would see and hear the latest call to action from Connecticut's energetic and wiry Second Congressional District representative, nearing the zero hour in his five-month crusade to lighten the financial burden of undergraduate student loans. His prop was a giant yellow poster board marked with a red headline ("A Ticking Timebomb"), and a tear-sheet calendar counting down to the end of the month, when a 2007 cost reduction law is scheduled to expire.
"Mr. Speaker, unless Congress acts in the next 11 days, the interest rate for the subsidized Stafford student loan program is going to increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent," Courtney said in a stentorian voice, his hands chopping the air with each word.
He turned and pointed to the top of the rostrum, where the president himself warned of the interest rate deadline during his January State of the Union address. That same night, Courtney filed the first legislative bill to keep the loan rate from reverting back to its earlier level, affecting an estimated seven million college students who will take on new federally subsidized loans for the 2012-2013 academic year.
Now, irritation in his voice, he continued: "President Obama challenged this Congress to avoid allowing that rate to double on July 1. For three solid months, we had absolutely no action in this Congress."
It was Courtney's two-dozenth House speech on the loan situation, the most he has done on any single issue in his 5½ years in Congress. In an interview later that day in his office across from the U.S. Capitol, he explained his persistence.
"The thing about this issue is it is a ticking clock, and that unlike a lot of other things we work on here, the impact is literally instantaneous," he said. "It's obviously so important that people are out there talking about it and keeping it visible."
Running for fourth term
Courtney hopes voters this fall will appreciate his efforts and return him to Washington for a fourth, two-year term. His district in eastern Connecticut is the largest in area of the state's five congressional districts, stretching from the Massachusetts border to the Long Island Sound and covering 64 towns and cities.
"It's a very diverse district in terms of its interests and issues, but I've really gotten to enjoy that and embrace it," said Courtney, 59, a former lawyer who represented Vernon in the state legislature from 1987 to 1994 and was named the "Democrat most admired by Republicans" by Connecticut magazine.
He also was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 1998 as running mate to former Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Kennelly, who unsuccessfully challenged then-Gov. John G. Rowland.
"I feel that, as difficult as Washington has become, that I'm the right guy to make sure that (the district's) interests are protected. Whether it's the kids up at UConn and their families or whether it's the shipyard workers in Groton, we have developed, I think, a really strong bond."
Courtney is facing two potential opponents this November.
East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica won the Connecticut GOP endorsement last month after state Rep. Chris Coutu, R-Norwich, stepped out of the race to pursue a state Senate seat.
Daria Novak of Madison finished behind Formica at the convention but with enough delegate votes to force an Aug. 14 primary. Both challengers are far behind the incumbent in fundraising; Novak reported less than $30,000 in early spring, and Formica is just beginning to raise money.
"We certainly plan to run a very aggressive campaign," said Courtney, whose war chest totaled just under $1 million in most recent filings.
Formica, who owns Flanders Fish Market and Restaurant in East Lyme, says his biggest beef is with Courtney's voting record. "I think Joe Courtney's a very nice man," he said recently. "But the fact of the matter is, he votes 96 percent of the time with his leadership."
Frustrated by inaction
Courtney was first elected to Congress in 2006 - his second attempt - edging incumbent Rob Simmons of Stonington by 83 votes in a year when Democrats wrested control of the House from Republicans.
But since Republicans gained their current 242-191 majority in the 2010 elections, Courtney has found himself for the first time in the minority. The new dynamic has been a challenge, Courtney said, especially during last year's debt-ceiling standoff and near government shutdown.
He considers the current House under Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, ineffectual and unproductive.
"We really have hardly originated a single bill that has made it all the way through the process," Courtney said.
He sat on the House's education committee in his first two terms but got booted off when Republicans took over. Overall, his biggest frustrations are that Congress hasn't reformed the national No Child Left Behind law or agreed to a new federal transportation bill, which, like the student loan legislation, expires on July 1.
He once considered the education committee one of Congress's most active. "Now it's a place that's just crippled by the Tea Party obsession that the Department of Education should be abolished," Courtney said. "That's a constant refrain that's still heard from the rank-and-file members of that committee, so as a result, it's become a sort of backwater. It shows again how far the national Republican Party has moved."
A message left last week for the committee's Republican leadership was not returned. But for state GOP leaders, it's time that Courtney moved out.
"Joe Courtney had big shoes to fill in succeeding Rob Simmons and he hasn't come close to filling them," said Jerry Labriola Jr., chairman of the state Republican Party. "Sure, he does the bare minimum of bringing home pork for his district, which would be expected of any congressman. But the overarching concern is his support for Obama's liberal agenda and trillions in debt that are leading this country toward European-style economic ruin."
Courtney called Labriola's criticism "a political talking point" that "just rings hollow." He said the president presented a good $3 trillion long-term deficit reduction plan, and faulted Congressional Republican leaders for the $1.2 trillion in automatic "sequestration" cuts looming for January.
'2 Sub Joe'
Courtney recently upgraded his living situation in Washington from the "single dingy unit" of his first two terms to a townhouse, which he shares with fellow Democrats Bruce Braley of Iowa and Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, not far from the U.S. Supreme Court Building.
His office is on the second floor of the Cannon House Office Building, notable for its extra-wide corridors and marble floors. Office space for new lawmakers is generally determined by lottery, but because Courtney missed the freshman lottery due to the 2006 race's recount, he wound up in Simmons' former office.
Its walls and desk space are covered with Connecticut posters, photographs and mementos, including two corked vials of what was once Arctic ice (now yellowish water) collected during his 2007 trip aboard the USS Alexandria, a Los Angeles-class attack submarine.
On a cabinet above his desk is a license plate: "2 Sub Joe." The plate and nickname were given by former Mississippi congressman Gene Taylor after Courtney's successful lobbying effort in his first term for two-per-year Virginia-class attack submarine production at Electric Boat.
More recently, Courtney, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus, has worked to oppose any future round of military base closures and to prevent a one-year cut in submarine production in 2014. He's also guarding the appropriation for a "stretched" version of a Virginia-class sub with cruise missile tubes being designed at EB's New London offices in the former Pfizer research building.
"The shipbuilding caucus has been a very productive, bipartisan effort," Courtney said.
With Republicans in control of the House, Courtney said, the key to getting through bills for the Second District is finding bipartisan support or working with the White House on goals that can be achieved through executive branch action.
He gave as an example the Environmental Protection Agency's recent attempt to regulate milk under 1970s oil spill prevention rules because it contains butterfat, a nonpetroleum oil.
Dairy farmers became concerned about the looming regulations, which critics said could cost farmers as much as $10,000 a year to demonstrate that they had the ability to contain milk spills.
Courtney said his office "spearheaded" a letter urging the Obama administration to dump the milk regulations. In April 2011, the EPA gave milk an exemption. Obama cracked a joke about that rollback in his State of the Union address - "With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk."
Courtney said he laughed out loud, as the threat truly had been real.
"We wanted to get it out there that this was just a complete overreach by the EPA," said Courtney, the first Connecticut Congressman in a century to sit on the House Agriculture Committee.
The other regulatory victory concerned a proposed Labor Department rule that would have restricted the work youths under age 16 may do on a farm. Courtney said he fielded many concerns from the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association and Second District farmers who rely on sons and daughters for chores, and urged Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis to reconsider. In April, the department withdrew the proposed rule.
Bucked leaders on TARP
Courtney concedes his GOP critics are right on one count: He often votes with Democrats on important bills. Since the November 2010 election, he joined House Democrats in repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and voted in favor of the DREAM Act that, if it hadn't died in the Senate, would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. He also voted against a Republican bill to repeal the new health care law.
However, Courtney faced much criticism in 2008 when he was the only state congressman to vote against the Troubled Asset Relief Program, colloquially known as the Wall Street bailout. The program gave capital infusions to banks and some companies such as GM and American International Group Inc., and is credited by economists with staving off a bigger credit crisis and economic depression.
Courtney said he stands by his vote and believes government missed an opportunity to force banks to take losses on home mortgages to benefit the occupants.
Looking beyond the election, Courtney said he hopes both parties can reach agreement on a long-term deal to avoid the automatic sequestration cuts to defense and social programs. He agrees with the White House on ending the Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year and wishes Congress could pass legislation to hold colleges "more accountable" for rising tuition costs.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, credited Courtney with making an aggressive, visible effort to prevent the doubling of student loan interest rates. "In between saving the sub, he is able to focus on an important issue like this," Larson said. "This is the kind of issue that resonates at the kitchen table - in an election year and not in an election year."