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A major rift has developed within the House Democratic Caucus, as moderates and liberals wage a war over influence and questions mount over the leadership’s direction for the minority party.
While allegations of ethical abuse on the other side of the aisle have helped mask Democrats’ divisions, the split burst into public view last week at a whip meeting. Tensions flared at the gathering over recent defections by moderate Democrats on key votes, most particularly the recent bankruptcy bill, in which 73 Members including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) sided with the GOP. The meeting left Hoyer defending the moderates’ votes and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) siding with progressives and criticizing centrists.
“People are frustrated we had a divided leadership on this bill and they were very outspoken on the opposite sides. Maybe that’s what helped this meeting turn into what it turned into,” said a senior Democratic staffer. “It’s possible this was the final straw for many.”
Numerous House Democratic sources said the meeting simply underscored broader tensions between a growing and emboldened centrist faction and the traditionally dominant liberal wing of the Caucus. It also raised new questions from some about the direction of House Democrats and the party as a whole, and once again underscored the ideological division that exists between Hoyer, a moderate, and Pelosi, a liberal.
“There is a feeling that there is nothing to unite this party right now,” said another senior Democratic staffer of the Caucus’ failure to take strong, detailed positions on issues. “There is Social Security, and we’re doing a good job on that, but that’s it. There are no grand ideas or principles for the party.
“If there’s nothing that’s unifying the party then everything is going to fall apart.”
Said another well-placed aide: “I think there is some jockeying within the Caucus between the progressives and the centrists. A lot of it is a result of the last election, where progressives believe that we should have dug in as more liberal and more progressive to show a stronger distinction.
“Moderates believe [2004 presidential nominee Sen. John] Kerry was a left-wing liberal from Massachusetts who didn’t reach out to conservative districts.”
Even before Tuesday’s dust-up, a veteran Democratic House Member summed up the 109th Congress this way: “There is heavy division in the Democratic Party over virtually every policy issue.”
But that Member, a moderate, said the struggle is a welcome one among many, given that the Democratic Caucus has long been led by liberals who know — and often care — little to nothing about the difficulty endangered lawmakers face winning in Republican-leaning districts. The predominantly liberal leadership has done nothing to improve the minority’s status at the ballot box, the Member said.
“There is emerging a centrist group within the Democratic Party that will be playing a part on major policy votes,” the Member vowed. “It’s about common sense. We cannot win from the left.”