Terry looks for redemption after his party got 'banished to the desert' in 2008

Terry leads White in fundraising

Published Sunday, September 26, 2010: By Joseph Morton, OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Lee Terry says he and his fellow Republicans have something to prove after the deficits they ran up when in charge of Congress.

“There's no doubt we lost our way,” the Omaha lawmaker said. “One of the things about this election is I want to get back into the majority so we can prove that that was an anomaly. That isn't who I am, and it isn't who the Republicans are.”

Every two years, six elections in a row, the voters in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District have sent Terry to Washington. He's now the dean of Nebraska's congressional delegation.

But the congressman's margins of victory have shrunk, and on Nov. 2, Terry faces what many political observers view as his toughest Democratic challenger yet: State Sen. Tom White of Omaha.

Terry, who still sleeps in his office while in Washington, touts his accessibility to constituents at town hall meetings and weekend coffees.

In the Capitol's hallways, the perpetually chuckling Terry hails House colleagues, Republicans and Democrats alike, by first name and is known as a personable guy. In a survey conducted by the Hill newspaper last year, House Democrats cited Terry as one of the easiest Republicans to work with.

But Terry rarely crosses party lines when it's time to vote on hotly contested issues. Congressional Quarterly's annual vote survey found that he sided with fellow Republicans 90 percent of the time in 2008 and 2009 on so-called “party unity” votes.

And good relationships don't always translate into legislative success: Terry has been working six years to get his top initiative out of committee. He says he'll keep working on it if he wins another term.

Terry says voters should give him the chance because he'll work hard to restrain federal spending and cut the deficit, even as he concedes that Republicans fell short when they last controlled Congress.

The government was running substantial surpluses through Terry's first few years in Congress, but those turned to annual deficits, including a red-ink tally in 2004 of $413 billion.

Terry said Republicans realized they had strayed from their core principles in 2006, after four years of deficit spending and increases in many areas of the budget. Voters handed control of Congress to the Democrats. “For the public, it was too little too late,” Terry said.

He said he has no regrets about his support for the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit or the $700 billion Wall Street bailout pursued by President George W. Bush.

Terry noted that he initially opposed the bailout, but that it ultimately seemed necessary, given the financial crisis. He later voted against releasing the second half of the bailout money and criticized the Obama administration's management of the program.

Terry pointed to his support of amendments to cut annual spending bills, though those amendments failed. He also has voted against omnibus spending bills under both Republican and Democratic control, saying many include wasteful spending.

Terry said Republicans will do better at reducing spending if given control again, because they know the consequences of failure.

“This isn't just words,” Terry said. “We understand that if we don't follow through on this, we'll be banished to the desert for another 40 years.”

On federal earmark requests — money set aside in spending legislation for home state projects — Terry has gone back and forth: He observed a moratorium on such requests several years ago, sought more than $85 million in 2009 and has made no earmark requests this year.

In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama won the Omaha-based 2nd District's electoral vote. Back then, Terry took pains to reach out to centrist Democrats and independents. In a mailing to independent women, he urged them to become “Obama-Terry” voters. Its gist was “if you're voting for Obama, you can still vote for Terry,” Terry campaign manager David Boomer said at the time.

But Terry has consistently voted against all of Obama's major domestic policy initiatives.

Terry rejected the economic stimulus package. Then he opposed the administration's cap-and-trade proposals. He said “nay” to the health care legislation. And he opposed new regulations of the nation's financial sector.

State and national Democrats have blasted Terry and the GOP in general as the “party of no” — out to obstruct everything in sight. Terry said the Republicans are only using time-honored tactics to block what they see as fundamentally flawed legislation.

“The hardest fights haven't been to get something passed, but to educate the people about some really bad bills,” Terry said.

Terry said the approach has paid off by bringing public pressure to bear on the Senate, which he said helped pare back the stimulus, delay or kill the cap and trade bill and strip the health care overhaul of its public option.

Terry described his relationship with the Obama White House as nonexistent. He recalled when Obama visited Capitol Hill last year to pitch his economic stimulus package to House Republicans.

Terry said he tried to engage the new president in conversation about alternative energy sources.

“And ‘boom' — he kind of just gives me this look and walks right by me,” Terry said. “That's almost an embarrassing moment, because you want to talk to the man and he doesn't want to talk to me.”

Terry said he has written to the White House seeking meetings but received little response. A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Terry last year offered his version of health care reform modeled after the federal employee health care system, but Democrats said the plan wasn't viable and it went nowhere.

Displaying his typical sense of humor, Terry dubbed that proposal the Simple Universal Healthcare Act — the “SUH” Act, honoring former Husker lineman Ndamukong Suh.

“He needed a bill named after him,” Terry said with a laugh.

A Terry proposal on fuel efficiency standards did become law in the previous Congress, and Terry has led the way on other bills recently, including measures to spur construction of an ethanol pipeline, promote low-power FM broadcast radio and go after what he calls customer abuse by ticket brokers.

None of those, however, has become law.

Terry's major legislative focus for the past six years has been overhauling the Universal Service Fund. That fund was established to provide telephone service to rural areas but now is seen as outdated and fiscally unstable. Some would like to eliminate the fund, but Terry wants to preserve it to help spread broadband Internet service in rural areas.

Although Terry represents an urban and suburban district, he said his constituents have “a lot of family and friends out there.”

Terry said all of his work on that legislation could be close to paying off, with major players in the telecommunications industry now backing the bill. But the measure isn't expected to pass this year and will have to be re-introduced in the next Congress.

This Congress has been dominated by such intense partisanship, Terry said, that it's difficult for those in the minority party to get anything passed.

“I've been working harder than I have at any time, but if you're looking for that Terry bill that was signed into law, you aren't going to find any Republicans that can tout legislative success this year,” he said.

Contact the writer: 202-662-7270, [email protected]

Lee Terry

Age: 48

Party: Republican

Home: Omaha

Occupation: U.S. representative

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1984; law degree, Creighton University, 1987

Previous offices: Omaha City Council, 1991-98

Family: Married, three children

Faith: Methodist

Web site:


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