Sometimes it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to be in Congress.

The country is at war, the economy is facing its worst crisis in decades and polls abound with the news that most Americans think the country is going the wrong way.

For Sen. Jay Rockefeller, though, it’s times like these that remind him why he ran for public office in the first place.

“We have to be accountable for everything,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

“They say they’re going to call us back into session on Nov. 5,” the day after the election, he said. “I hope they do. We’re paid to work, and we have a lot of work to do.”

The incumbent senator, seeking a fifth term against a challenge by Republican Jay Wolfe, said that work won’t be easy. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Rockefeller said the country is no safer now from the threat of terrorism than it was eight years ago. As a longtime advocate of expanding health coverage, he said too many Americans still go without insurance.

But it’s the economy that may dominate the agenda of the next Congress, and while West Virginia has so far escaped some of the pain felt elsewhere, Rockefeller sees anxiety and fear whenever he talks to constituents.

“People are very, very afraid,” he said. “You’ve just got to be wondering about the future if you’re in your sixties and looking at your pension and your retirement savings.”

The $700 billion bailout vote, which has since been modified by the administration, is something Rockefeller supported and which his opponent points out as a telling difference between them.

“I’m opposed to bailouts,” said Wolfe, a Harrison County businessman. “I would not have voted for that. It’s the wrong way to go. If you’re going to spend money, why not spend it on something the people of West Virginia need, like infrastructure improvements?”

The bailout plan wasn’t perfect, Rockefeller said, but he compares it to performing emergency surgery to save a patient’s life.

“Not to vote for the bill, that’s like saying I don’t really care about what’s happening to people with mortgages in West Virginia,” he said.

Rockefeller says he feels the anxiety in the lives of West Virginians and that motivates him to try to alleviate it. It’s a “sustained outrage” that first stirred in him 44 years ago as a VISTA volunteer in the mining community of Emmons.

“It never leaves me,” he said.

He got his start in West Virginia politics in 1968 when he was elected to the House of Delegates. Elected governor in 1976 and re-elected in 1980, Rockefeller was voted into the U.S. Senate in 1984 and has served four terms.

Some of that old VISTA optimism can be glimpsed in how he sees signs of hope on the horizon. A new Congress and new administration, he said, will pass the expansion of the state-run Children’s Health Insurance Programs that was twice vetoed by President George Bush.

And the energy crunch is an opportunity to organize what he calls a Manhattan project for so-called “clean coal” research. With government funding and private enterprise, Rockefeller believes energy can be produced from burning coal with low carbon emissions within a few years.

“It’s not a question of ‘it would be nice if it could be done,”’ he said. “Coal has to be clean. It has to happen.”

In more philosophical terms, Rockefeller sees a social fragmentation that he worries makes it harder for Americans to unite in common purpose. He’d like to see some kind of two-year public service program similar to what he did as a volunteer in the coalfields in the 1960s.

“That’s how people really discover what it is they want to be,” he said.

All of this, though, will cost money, and the billions the federal government is preparing to spend as part of its economic rescue strategy — on top of all its other commitments — makes such projects more politically challenging.

Going forward, Rockefeller wants to see greater congressional oversight as well as criminal investigations of Wall Street players and, if warranted, indictments.

“The definition of ‘responsibility’ just got a whole lot harder in the last two months,” he said.

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