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Florida Democrat Blazing Her Own Trail on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON —Just two months into her freshman term in Congress, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz already is distinguishing herself from her predecessor and mentor, Peter Deutsch, a former representative.

While Deutsch was among the most hawkish congressional Democrats on Middle East issues, Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida’s 20th district, a heavily Jewish swath of Broward County, is taking a more centrist approach.

“I support promoting peace and stability through aid to the Palestinians as long as there is a true commitment to a cessation of violence against Israel, financial transparency, and continued support of the dialogue of peace with Israel,” she said in a statement approving of President Bush’s plan to send $200 million in emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority.

“We want to continue to focus on making sure that… the policy coming from Washington continues to encourage and support and nurture the peace process,” Wasserman Schultz said in a recent interview with the Forward in her office in the House Cannon Building. “In [Bush’s] first four years, there was a lack of leadership coming from the administration. I know many people in the Jewish community were happy with the president’s position on Israel, but the way I thought, there was an absence of leadership.… So I’m glad to see there’s a little more engagement and involvement from the administration.”

Wasserman Schultz, 38, was raised in New York, but attended the University of Florida, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and participating in student government. She gained early legislative experience as Deutsch’s aide at the beginning of his congressional career. Following him into elected office, Wasserman Schultz was youngest woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives, at 26. She served there and in the State Senate for 12 years. Then, when Deutsch retired from the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 to run for Senate — unsuccessfully, it turned out — Wasserman Schultz ran for his seat; facing token Republican opposition in the heavily Democratic 20th district, she won her race.

In Congress, she secured a seat on the coveted Financial Services Committee. She also was named a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and senior whip.

Petite and blond, and a mother of three, Wasserman Schultz is viewed widely today as one of her party’s rising stars.

“She’s going to be a lot more visible than Deutsch was,” predicted Buddy Nevins, political columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Nevins noted her dedication to liberal and Jewish causes, and described her as “tireless” and “grass-roots oriented.” “She’s going to make a lot of waves in D.C.”

When the Forward caught up with her last month in Washington, Wasserman Schultz was feeling the frustration of a minority member of the Republican-led Congress. She had just returned from a floor vote on an amendment to The Real ID Act, now passed, which prohibits the federal government from accepting state-issued identification from states that issue such documents to undocumented immigrants. The bill’s sponsors claimed it would curtail the activities of terrorists, but opponents saw it as an across-the-board attack on immigration.

“The way the Republicans set up the process, there is no ability to actually debate, in any significant way, the important issues that we’re voting on,” she railed. “This immigration bill that we’re voting on today never went through committee, never had a public hearing, had no testimony taken on it, it just went right to the floor. I mean a major, major change to immigration law that… affects thousands and thousands of people — never actually got any review. So that’s pretty outrageous.”

Wasserman Schultz said she’s “pretty used to being in the minority,” having spent 12 years in the minority in the Florida legislature. Even so, she said, “what I prided myself on in the Florida legislature, and developed a reputation for, was having good relationships on both sides of the aisle.… This process is so insulated and each member is in their own little cocoon, it makes it harder to build relationships. So for me, I’m going to have to adjust my style.”

When it comes to the Middle East, Wasserman Schultz rejects Republican attempts to paint House Democrats as soft on Israel because of the anti-Israel views of such caucus members as Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.

“I would stack up the Democratic caucus’s position on the support for Israel against the Republican caucus’s any day of the week and be much more confident — and the Jewish community should be much more confident — in the Democrats’ stewardship of Israel than the Republicans’,” she said, “especially if you compare the underlying reasons for both groups’ support for Israel. The very far right group of Republicans’ interest in Israel is not because they are so supportive of there being a Jewish state and making sure that Jews have a place that we can call home. It has references to Armageddon and biblical references that are more their interest. So I would encourage members of the Jewish community to put their faith in Democrats, because our support for Israel is generally for the right reasons.”

Wasserman Schultz also is confident that Democrats will retain Jewish voters on the gamut of domestic issues.

“The Jewish community, because of our traditional support for the people who are the most in need, for children, for the array of human services we all care about making sure we provide… should take a close look at this budget that the president put forward… and how awful it is and how devastating the cuts are,” she said, faulting Bush for stinting homeland security, the No Child Left Behind Act, health care, children’s programs and housing.

Wasserman Schultz also railed against Bush’s plan for Social Security, arguing that it would “throw the future of retirement security of the next generation and the one after that and every generation into the future into the wind.” She has begun holding meetings on the matter in her home district.

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