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Shaheen looks back on 1st year in Senate

DOVER - Since her first day on the job one year ago, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has received a daily report on the letters, e-mails and phone calls that flood her Capitol office.

There have been about 140,000 of them, and though some are part of coordinated campaigns by interest groups, she said, several are "very personal."

One such letter came from Dover veteran Wayne Merritt, who risked losing more than half of his monthly pension due to a Department of Defense policy that recouped money from unsuspecting members of the military who received special separation benefits and then became eligible for a pension after a subsequent re-enlistment.

Like other letters, his stood out. It also created an early opportunity for Shaheen to help someone back home, and about 1,200 other veterans nationwide caught in the bureaucratic bind, by working the Senate and its parliamentary system steeped in rules.

"We sent a letter to the secretary of defense and we got a letter back from the deputy saying, you know, 'Sorry, there's nothing we can do to help,'" Shaheen recalled this week, looking back over her first year in Congress. "And we said, 'Well, that's not good enough.'"

She reached out to lawmakers representing the home states of other veterans and was able to get a fix attached to a spending bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to combat H1N1. Problem solved.

Overall, it's been quite a year for the former governor and Madbury resident, whose election in November made her part of a Democratic majority wrangling with health care and repairing the economy. She gets asked a lot how her time in Washington differs from her six years in Concord's corner office, but says "it's really apples and oranges."

"The issues tend to be similar, although they have a different focus often, and you have less control over the schedule and decision-making," she said in an interview at her Dover office. "But certainly having been in the state Senate and having been governor is helpful, because I have a background in working in a bipartisan way."

Such a background helps navigate the "partisan divide" of D.C., she said, adding "that's still very important, and that's the way I try to work."

Shaheen said she and Sen. Judd Gregg - whose Senate desk, which once belonged to Daniel Webster, she'll inherit upon the senior senator's retirement later this year - have made a good team.

"Obviously we don't agree on a lot of the big issues, but when it comes to what affects New Hampshire, we've worked closely together," she said.

Shaheen also highlighted her work with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a fellow member of the small business and entrepreneurship committee. They arranged for the chief of the Small Business Administration to visit Portsmouth last summer to hear from business owners. Shaheen's involvement with the SBA also has included getting the agency to make loan guarantees to 70,000 businesses lacking assistance, and after meeting with local auto dealers, ensure backing for floor-plan financing, which allows dealers to stock their showrooms.

But above all, Shaheen said, "I think what I'm most proud of are efforts to address concerns that people in New Hampshire have had and to try and address the economy in a way that will help people that are struggling, and that's really been the focus of so much of our work over the last year. ... I think there is general consensus that we avoided the meltdown that people thought was imminent. The financial markets are working again, but people are struggling, particularly small businesses when it comes to access to credit. That's an area that we need to continue to work on."

The economy afforded Shaheen an opportunity to shape debate. It came in response to a House measure offering 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits to workers in 27 states with unemployment rates higher than 8.5 percent, but the measure excluded New Hampshire and 22 other states.

She successfully proposed extending benefits for an additional week to every state and by an additional six weeks to states with the highest unemployment rates, catapulting her into the middle of a partisan fight.

"The bill was headed through on a unanimous consent resolution and we put a hold on it and said, 'No, that's not fair,'" she said. "We worked very hard on it in crafting the language with the leadership in the Senate to find a better way to help those states that were not going to be helped by the House-passed legislation. I think it made a difference for people in New Hampshire and across the country."

Soon after she got to Washington, Shaheen bucked the party line and voted against releasing an additional $350 billion of TARP funding, better known as the Wall Street bailout. It was a "very tough vote," she said.

"I just thought given the lack of accountability for the money, I didn't think it made sense to fund another round until we knew exactly where the money had gone and how it was going to be used. And I think that was a good vote," she said. "I still feel very proud of that, because I think we still haven't seen enough accountability for where the money went, and we still have too many banks that are not lending in a way that will get credit going for business in this state and the country."

Shaheen also cosponsored a bill signed into law in April giving the government's inspector general greater ability to investigate cases of fraud and abuse in the TARP program, which was designed to shore up ailing financial institutions.

Challenges remain on the credit front, the senator said, as the most reported concern heard at her district offices is housing "and the unwillingness of banks to work with their customers."

"It's not all banks," she added. "I want to give community banks by and large a pass on this because they haven't been as much of an issue. But some of the big banks that have been the primary mortgage lenders in New Hampshire have been very difficult to work with and to work with customers to modify those loans ... which I think long-term is going to be better for the banks as well as the consumers."

In addition to the small business committee, Shaheen also was appointed to the committees on foreign relations and energy and natural resources, two key posts that gave her other chances to shape legislation or, as in the case with her May trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, explore issues from the ground up.

The senator said her trip not only helped shape her expectations, but enabled her to gauge the mood of Afghanis, who she described as "fighters" and "interested in this war and protecting their country."

"As we are developing a more well-defined strategy that is going to include additional troops, we are going to see more conflict, and I think everybody's concerned about that," she said. "But it comes with the belief that this is important if we're going to be successful there. And I think you define success not as a pro-western democracy in Afghanistan, but as a stable country that is able to govern itself and able to keep al-Qaida and the Taliban from using it as a free base of operation."

Shaheen also became chairwoman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, which has jurisdiction over NATO efforts in Afghanistan. As chair, she presided over nomination hearings for more than 30 State Department nominees and a hearing exploring the future of NATO.

When the Senate reconvenes later this month, an energy bill passed out of Shaheen's committee will have to be reconciled with climate-change legislation. She authored provisions so wind, biomass and other renewable energy producers can get credits for the energy they produce, which in turn can be sold to other producers.

"I think that's important not just for New Hampshire - New England Wood Pellet - but as we look to our energy challenge, making sure that we encourage people who are using energy to make good use of the heat aspect of it, which has really been ignored pretty much when we think about electricity," she said.

In assessing the "partisan divide" of Congress, Shaheen said she was hopeful Democrats and Republicans can craft a final bill.

"I think it's going to be another challenging bill, but it is one that seems to have, at least initially, more bipartisan support," she said.

Arguably the biggest legislation of 2009 was the health care bill, which involved the second longest session - 24 days - in the Senate's history. She joined freshman senators in introducing a series of cost-containment measures, including a provision she authored to expand accountable care organizations, which are groups of providers that she says are held responsible for the quality and cost of care for their patients and will be able to work with private plans to align private and public health care strategies to improve services.

Though the Senate's bill might not be perfect, she said, several measures will improve the system.

"A lot of the focus was not on some of the provisions that I think will be where some of the changes to our health care system come from," she said. She cited efforts to focus on performance and outcomes rather than keeping the fee-for-service model's focus on the number of medical procedures as well as providing incentives for coordinated care and providing the uninsured with access to affordable care.

Shaheen supported the government-run public health option, which was stripped from the Senate measure, because of its ability to inject competition into the marketplace.

"But there are other ways to accomplish that," she said. "One of the things that is in the bill is a requirement that a certain percentage of what health insurance companies spend their money on is health care instead of administration."

The full brunt of the legislation isn't expected to come online before 2014, which Shaheen said she supports since reform "needs to be done carefully" and in a way "that allows us to correct" areas if needed.

"A lot of the work is gong to be done in states and by the Department of Health and Human Services, and we need to make sure that they have the resources to try and get this right," she said.

Some aspects of the bill, however, will take effect immediately, including tax credits for small businesses so they can cover employees, ending discrimination practices against people with pre-existing conditions, requiring children with health issues to be covered and allowing families to keep children on parents' health plans until they reach 27, something already law in New Hampshire.

In the coming year, Shaheen said job creation and tackling the nation's debt will be top priorities. She said her staff, which numbers 15 in the state and 21 in Washington, will continue to be available to residents needing help.

"I recognize that is one of the primary responsibilities that I have as a United States senator," she said.

When she returns to the Capitol, she'll also be a year wiser when it comes to the rules of the institution. That means no more attempts to cast votes while wearing sneakers on the Senate floor, even if she is running between meetings. She said she also won't enter the chamber with a coat - a Senate no-no.

"There are a lot of traditions like that," she said.