- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Less than 24 hours after showing their support for President Bush, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and other top Democrats yesterday hosted the Rev. Jesse Jackson to highlight the distress of laid-off Enron employees.
"These workers got wiped out en masse," Mr. Jackson told Democratic leaders at the Capitol. He said Congress must bail out Enron employees because the firm's financial collapse is as devastating as the attack on the World Trade Center.
Mr. Jackson brought the unemployed workers from Houston to Washington this week as Democrats stepped up their attacks on the administration's ties to the failed energy firm. Its collapse wiped out retirement savings for thousands of employees.
A memo circulated among Democrats this week by political strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum said the Enron story "has the potential to shape the entire political environment for 2002 and reduce confidence in the Bush Administration and Republicans."
"This is an issue where Democrats ought to talk about right and wrong, greed and responsibility," the memo says. "The more people hear, the more corrosive it becomes."
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said it was "disappointing that Democrats are exploiting the tragedy of thousands of Enron employees for their own political gain."
"While they move in that direction, congressional Republicans are working with President Bush to win the war against terrorism and help a faltering economy so more Americans have jobs," Lott spokesman Ronald Bonjean said.
The meeting with about 20 former Enron employees included Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee and Ken Bentsen, Texas Democrats who have received more campaign donations from Enron than any other House members since 1989. While some in the meeting blamed Enron's powerful political connections for workers' predicament, Mr. Bentsen said he felt no such responsibility.
"No, I don't," Mr. Bentsen said. "Enron failed because of gross mismanagement and [actions] close to fraud."
Mr. Jackson revealed that his Rainbow/PUSH organization also accepted "modest" contributions from the bankrupt company. He said returning the money as some politicians have done would be a "frivolous gesture."
The session was a stark contrast to the president's State of the Union address Tuesday night, when Democrats stood and cheered Mr. Bush for his handling of the war on terrorism.
Mr. Jackson told the laid-off workers that Mr. Bush cares more about eliminating the corporate alternative minimum tax than helping them pay their bills.
"Bush wants to give a retroactive, 15-year rebate and give Enron about $500 million another shoebox filled with champagne change," Mr. Jackson said.
The lawmakers expressed sympathy and invited television cameras to the meeting, but they offered few solutions.
"We've heard from Reverend Jackson about the pain that you have all felt and will be feeling," said Rep. Nick Lampson, Texas Democrat. "We feel that pain."
Mr. Jackson said the Bush administration will spend upwards of $15 billion to rebuild Afghanistan and that Americans rushed to the aid of New Yorkers "with huge sums of money" after September 11. He said former Enron employees deserve no less.
"These workers need a restructured bailout," Mr. Jackson said.
When Rep. Gene Green, Texas Democrat, suggested that Congress could reform bankruptcy laws, Mr. Jackson urged the lawmaker to think bigger.
"You can't look at this that little," Mr. Jackson said. "We shall redefine worker justice and consumer rights."
Mr. Gephardt and House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi of California said they would look into measures to protect workers' retirement savings.
"We are deeply sympathetic and empathetic with what you face," Mr. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, told the workers.
Democrats believe the story could help them win back the House this year and derail Bush initiatives such as Social Security privatization and his energy policy, which includes a proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The Democratic strategy memo states that "voters are beginning to rethink the character of Bush's domestic initiatives."
"Most telling is the erosion of the Bush administration's Teflon coating," the report states. "Enron obviously reopens a side to George W. Bush that even now raises important worries for voters."
The strategists say its polling shows that voters increasingly view the administration as linked too closely to corporate America.
"California power deregulation and the White House policies take on a new meaning in the context of Enron: 44 percent express strong anger (and 63 percent 'anger') that Enron may have used its access and influence to keep prices high at the expense of California consumers," the memo said.
Asked whether Democrats share blame for Enron, Mr. Jackson said the issue "is not about protecting the party."
"Democrats and Republicans denied blacks the right to vote in the South," Mr. Jackson said. "So at some point, the principle transcends party. The issue is about workers, no matter who is in the White House. Pension funds must be secure."

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