WASHINGTON — After patiently waiting his turn to enter the congressional debate on child tax credits,U.S. Rep. Artur Davis heard his name called by the Democratic leader controlling the floor of the House of Representatives.
Getting in more words in one minute than many can in five,Davis,D-Birmingham,coolly rebuffed his Republican counterparts for blocking legislation he was instrumental in proposing.
As the 36-year-old Davis returned to his seat,senior Democratic congressmen patted him on the back.
“He makes his point and he makes it with passion,but he doesn't burn bridges,” said Republican Jo Bonner,a freshman congressman from Alabama's 1st District.
During Davis' first six months in Congress,leaders and colleagues have seen a man with strong convictions who can toe the partisan line yet cooperate with Republicans. They see ambition in the strong-willed,slightly built freshman congressman.
Davis gained the office last year by defeating five-term U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard,D-Birmingham,who was the first black congressman elected from Alabama since Reconstruction.
Davis is more at ease discussing the plight of rural Alabama than revealing his personal life away from Congress. A bachelor,Davis seems to take little interest in Washington's social life. He lives in a historic neighborhood a few blocks from the Capitol.
“I probably have fewer friends right now than any other point in life because I have so little time to really make relationships with people,” he said.
“In my previous life,I used to read a lot,” said Davis,an ardent student of American history. “Frankly,I don't get a lot of time to really read books now.”
Instead,the Montgomery native and former assistant U.S. attorney spends his time traveling between Washington and Birmingham,making speeches to constituents and attending leadership summits on Capitol Hill.
“Right now my time is very much congested,” Davis said during an interview in his office,which was interrupted by a buzzer indicating a vote on the House floor. He finished the interview on the short walk from his office to the Capitol.
“It can be tough to get used to the schedule and rhythms here in Congress,but Artur has jumped right in and is doing a great job,” said U.S. Rep. “Bud” Cramer,D-Huntsville.
Davis is getting noticed by some Washington insiders,too. Roll Call,a newspaper that covers Congress,recently listed him as a possible Democratic leader to watch.
“He's been a very impressive freshman,” said U.S. Rep. Barney Frank,D-Mass.,the ranking member of the Financial Services Committee,on which Davis serves.
Frank said Davis has showed strong leadership and played a major role in legislation involving housing for lower income families.
“He's been a very active and valuable member,” Frank said.
On June 26,Davis appeared on a C-SPAN talk show and in the afternoon took part in the first African-American Leadership Summit. The summit included a panel of leading Senate and House Democrats,who discussed the purpose of political participation in the 21st century. U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton,D-N.Y.,and U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.,D-Tenn.,another young,emerging black leader,were among the panelists.
“One of our goals is certainly to try to find ways to galvanize young people to participate in the political process,” Davis said. “Young adults are not voting anywhere near the numbers that their grandparents and parents vote,nor are they participating and contributing financially in the political process in the way that they are capable of. I think that that's a real deficit.”
Raised by his mother and grandmother,Davis said he grew up in a poor household. His tireless work ethic propelled him to Harvard University for both his undergraduate and law degrees,but Davis acknowledges his race played a role in getting him into the prestigious school.
“I was certainly a beneficiary of affirmative action when I went to Harvard University,” he said during his interview on C-SPAN. “I think I've done fairly well since then.”
Davis said he was disappointed by the Supreme Court's recent decision banning racial quotas for accepting undergraduates atthe University of Michigan.
Long before his election to Congress,however,Davis' lifelong drive was being mapped out,said U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson of Montgomery,who selected Davis for a clerkship when Davis was still at Harvard.
“When he came here,he made clear that he wanted to get from here to Washington,” Thompson said.
Davis is quick to support his old boss,who earlier this year ruled against Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and his placement of a monument of the Ten Commandments in the lobby of the Alabama Supreme Court. A federal appellate court upheld Thompson's ruling.
“Certainly putting a sectarian symbol in a public building,particularly a judicial building,seems to run afoul of the (Constitution's) establishment clause,” Davis said.
“I think that it's a very important symbol of faith,but everyone doesn't share my faith. And certainly everyone who walks in that Supreme Court building shouldn't expect that people of one faith are going to dictate the outcome of a case.”
Another recent battle in Alabama judicial circles has been the nomination of Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor to the federal bench by President Bush. Leading Senate Democrats have questioned Pryor's ability to fairly preside as a judge because of his outspoken conservative viewpoint and agenda as Alabama attorney general. Despite significant ideological differences with Pryor,Davis supports the nomination.
“I think that,frankly,a number of people who weighed in on the Bill Pryor controversy from a national standpoint don't have the benefit of knowing his record in Alabama,” Davis said. “They don't have the benefit of knowing the various times that he has,frankly,stood up to the Republican Party in our state.
“I believe that the same Bill Pryor who has shown independence in dealing with the Republican Party would be an independent person if he was on the bench.”
But Davis isn't always so supportive of Republicans,especially Bush. Davis raised serious doubts before and after the war with Iraq about the president's foreign policy.
“The option won't always be there to act militarily,and my concern has been and remains whether or not the administration has developed a clear-cut,consistent policy for dealing with adversaries around the world,” Davis said.
He also said the administration's policy could bring down British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Britain,Blair is under a firestorm of political scrutiny over the accuracy of U.S. and British intelligence reports that pointed to weapons of mass destruction before the war. No such weapons have been found in Iraq.
“What a shame if the administration's use of intelligence in this war ended up costing us one of the ablest leaders of the world and a very,very strong American ally,” Davis said. “That's something that should have been on the administration's mind and that should be on the administration's mind today.”
Davis also rejects the president's plan for economic recovery.
“I think the administration's policy of dramatic tax cuts and dramatic spending cuts is,frankly,the wrong set of priorities,” Davis said.
His criticism doesn't stop with the president.
Davis' floor speech criticized House Republican leaders for blocking the child tax credit bill he co-sponsored. The controversy began when Congress passed the $350 billion tax cut in May that excluded lower-income families from the $400 child tax credit increase because they don't pay income taxes. Davis's bill would include those families,and it passed the Senate as part of a $3.5 billion package.
In response to Democratic demands,House Republicans passed another measure in June that went far beyond Davis' proposal,an $82 billion package that actually expanded child tax credits to all income levels through 2010.
Davis called that action a ruse. He said he believes House Republicans crafted their bill to kill the issue of child tax credits. They know such a costly bill will never get passed in the Senate,he said. The House and the Senate are trying to reconcile the differences in their bills now.
In the end,Congress will be back where it started,with lower-income families excluded from the deal,Davis said. He also said the House Republican bill would give upper-income families a check immediately,while lower-income families would not receive refunds until April.
“That's an act of arrogance,in my opinion,” Davis said. “I think that's a slap in the face to hard-working families all across the country.”
But Davis is not always so partisan.
“I've seen him work the aisle on a number of issues,” Bonner said.
He pointed to Davis' work with U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris,R-Fla.,on a bill that would help low-income families buy homes.
“I doubt there's a Republican freshman that's more of a high profile member that Democrats loath than Katherine Harris,” Bonner said. Harris was the Florida secretary of state during the controversial 2000 presidential ballot recount.
Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Redding Pitt said he sees Davis as a visionary,someone who is shaping the Democratic Party.
“He has a very keen understanding of the Democratic Party,” said Pitt,who hired Davis to work as an assistant U.S. attorney when Pitt was a U.S. attorney in Alabama. Davis worked in the office from 1994 until 1998.
Knowing Davis' work ethic and intelligence,Pitt predicted a promising future for his protege.
“He could be a very strong leader in the House,” Pitt said. “He could be elected to major statewide office.”
But Davis isn't speculating about his future just yet.
“I don't really think about it,” he said. “I have no interest in looking at any other race or any other office until I can really make an impact in my district.”