Democrats Keeping Heat on Medicare Defectors, But No Immediate Punishment Forthcoming

Posted July 11, 2003 at 6:39pm

House Democratic leaders, angered over Caucus defections on a key prescription drug bill, are engaging in private discussions with Members to admonish them for defying the party.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) met with Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) last week, while Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) buttonholed Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) to talk about their respective votes on the measure, which passed by one vote late last month.

Pelosi, according to sources, wants to make clear to the defectors that Democrats plan a national attack on the Republican bill and to embarrass those who supported it in the process.

“She told [Pomeroy], ‘We’re going to trash this bill and you are going to look bad,’” said one Democratic leadership aide.

Through spokesmen, both Israel and Pomeroy declined to discuss the meetings, although both men spoke about their votes with reporters.

Pelosi is stressing to Members that defections are not acceptable and is pushing those who strayed to reconsider their positions when the bill returns to the floor after a conference committee. The Minority Leader also led a heated Caucus meeting last week at which she denounced the defections on bills and hammered home the importance of Democratic unity.

Desperate to defend their numbers in the chamber, Democrats are loathe to make any moves that could jeopardize the re-election of a vulnerable Member, such as taking away committee assignments, and several highly placed Caucus sources said Pelosi was working to turn up the peer pressure against them, rather than offering some kind of formal punishment. However, sources also indicated she may go as far as denying plum travel assignments or other Caucus perks to Members who sided with the GOP.

“These Members will not suffer the same consequences they would in the Republican Conference if they had bucked the leadership,” said one leadership aide. “But the Leader made it abundantly clear that committing to [the] president over the Democratic leader undermines the entire Caucus.”

Nine Democrats sided with the GOP on the bill, angering party leaders who believed the vote was a “party call” on which all Members should be together.

But leaders were particularly upset with Pomeroy and Israel on the vote, given they typically side with Democrats. Israel even met with President Bush at the White House the week the bill was heading to the floor.

Pomeroy said last week that although he recognizes his vote may have disappointed his colleagues, he felt it was the right move for his constituents.

“The Caucus recognizes people will make their own decisions on representing their districts,” Pomeroy said.

The North Dakota lawmaker, who represents a swing district, said he hasn’t felt any rub from his colleagues over the vote, even though some have privately threatened they won’t contribute to his campaign.

“If they want to withdraw their support, I will honor that,” Pomeroy said. “There’s no suggestion that that has happened.”

“If anyone has anything to say to me, I expect them to say it to my face,” he added. “I certainly understand their disappointment, but there’s been no suggestion of a personal or professional fallout.”

Israel, meanwhile, said he had no threats of repercussions from leadership. He said he was very clear in his position on the issue before the vote and explained to leaders why he had to vote the way he did.

“I campaigned on this issue,” Israel said. “This issue elected me to Congress and, to a large extent, my re-election requires me to be consistent on this issue.

“I voted the same last year.”

Nicole Duran contributed to this report.