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New Democrats Promote Centrist Agenda in Polarized Congress

Coalition seeks to break through gridlock with proposals both parties can support

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis.., center, leads the New Democrat Coalition. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At a time when many politicians are pushing extremist agendas, one group of Democrats is trying to do the exact opposite.  

The New Democrat Coalition wants to "help build consensus from the center up," Chairman Ron Kind, D-Wis., said in an interview Tuesday.  

And they want to get started now. "Now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand," Kind said, previewing a report his coalition plans to release Wednesday.  

The report, provided to Roll Call in advance, outlines roughly 200 bills, letters of support and other draft products that the New Democrats are using to advance their priorities of growing the economy, expanding opportunity and making government work. The specific proposals build on the 24 planks of the American Prosperity Agenda the coalition announced this time last year .  

The ideas in the report range from big-ticket items such as rewriting the tax code and overhauling the immigration system to smaller proposals in a wide array of policy areas.  

"If you look at the New Dem agenda, what you see is a list of things that really have to do with our future - whether it's education or budgeting or investment, science," Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif. said in an interview. "We're really thinking about how to keep our nation competitive."  

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., described the New Democrats' proposals as "great, practical, realistic, actionable legislation.”  

One of the roughly 20 agenda items that has already been signed into law is a bill Esty worked on with Republican Lamar Smith of Texas to expand computer science education and provide resources for teachers to train other teachers in the field.  

Esty spoke about proposals to expand research and development, reinvigorate manufacturing, encourage innovation, and invest in infrastructure.  

"We should not wait until the presidential election for Congress to be acting on these very things that we hear over and over again in these town hall meetings,” she said.  

Peters agreed that Congress should be taking action now but he sees more of an opportunity after a new president is elected to get some of the things the coalition is proposing done.  

"I think we're going to have learned the lesson that people are frustrated with a dysfunctional DC," he said. "I think the New Dems will have a curriculum to offer that will be attractive to both sides of the aisle."  

Peters said that presidential candidates, particularly GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Democratic hopeful Bernard Sanders, have built support off that frustration but they are offering "pretty unrealistic" proposals. In contrast, he said the the New Democrats have proposals that could actually win approval in Congress if members stop focusing only on appealing to their parties' bases.  

"People are scared that they're going to be hit by their flanks, so the idea of the New Dems is to develop a critical mass of people who are willing to try to do the right thing," Peters said.  

The New Democrats have shown they're not afraid to break ranks with the rest of their party.  Last year, Kind and other coalition members offered the votes Republicans needed to pass trade promotion authority through the House.  

The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement President Obama crafted faces tough odds of passing Congress this year with both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates bashing the trade deal, but there is "an effort on both sides to find a path forward," Kind said.  

Being in the center, the New Democrats try to work with House leaders from both parties.  

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined the group for lunch when they unveiled their agenda last year and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is scheduled to join them for lunch Wednesday as they release the follow up-report.  

Kind said he also works closely with fellow Wisconsin representative Paul D. Ryan. As speaker, Ryan has reached out to the New Democrats on policy areas, such as cyber security and taxes, that are part of their agenda, Kind said.  

Ryan's willingness to lean across the aisle has and will likely continue to be a necessity given the fractures in the GOP conference.  

"It makes it all the more necessary," Kind said.  

The New Democrats plan to promote their agenda both in Congress and back home in their districts as they run for reelection.  

"What I hear from my constituents is -- they're not ideological, they have their preferences, but they are just vexed by the fact that people won't make a deal," Peters said. "You talk to any business person or any home owner they understand that they have to compromise."

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