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New Democrats Feel Their Time Is Coming

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the New Democrat Coalition and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the coalition would play an influential role in tax reform next year.

One Democratic observer with ties to the coalition said the members could pull from the playbook they used during the debate over the Dodd-Frank financial package to build their influence on taxes. During that 2010 debate, New Democrats temporarily blocked the bill from hitting the floor until leadership agreed to include, among other things, language giving federal regulators greater power to override state consumer protection laws.

“They were at their finest because they had a strong leader willing to hold the votes on an issue that the New Dems were incredibly knowledgeable on,” the Democratic observer said, suggesting that tax reform could be their encore. “It was the perfect storm of all these pieces coming together. That doesn’t happen all the time.”

The move irked liberal Democrats, proving the moderate faction can be at odds with the larger Caucus. If Democrats win back the majority next year or even pick up a significant number of seats, the New Democrats could again find themselves pulling right while their liberal colleagues tack left. Asked whether the arrival of the populist Occupy Wall Street movement might sharpen the divisions between liberal and moderate Democrats, or at least require New Democrats to temper their pro-business message, one aide said no.

“They’re not in Loudoun County in Virginia, they’re not in Bucks County in Pennsylvania, and they’re not in Lake County in Illinois,” the aide said of the protesters. “They’re not where independent voters are. They’re in downtown Chicago and McPherson Square.”

The New Democrats had as many as 69 members in 2009 right before Crowley became chairman, but that number has dwindled to 42. By comparison, the Blue Dogs boasted a membership of more than 50 in 2009 and saw that number cut down to its current 25 in the wake of the 2010 elections.

As the party looks to regain those seats, they have a host of moderates to consult in the leadership ranks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Crowley serves as the DCCC’s chairman of finance, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) leads DCCC efforts on recruitment and candidate services. Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), widely considered a rising star in the coalition, leads the DCCC’s Frontline operation, while Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.) is chairman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program.

Former Reps. Bill Foster (Ill.) and Dan Maffei (N.Y.), who were New Democrats during their stints in Congress, are running again in 2012. Another former New Democrat who might consider another run for the House is former Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), who also lost last year in the Republican wave.

During the DCCC’s fly-in of more than 100 candidates last month, aides said several potential lawmakers expressed interest in winning an endorsement from the New Democrats. The group’s political action committee has yet to get involved in races, but candidates such as Brad Schneider in Illinois and Jamie Wall in Wisconsin are said to fit the group’s pro-business mold.

“These are swing districts, moderate districts, but everywhere it’s about finding the right candidate,” Schwartz said. “And we think many of them will be New Dems.”

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