Democrats See Rift in House

Posted April 22, 2005 at 6:27pm

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.”

Another Democratic lawmaker said the growing push to move to the center in the Caucus stems from “a realization that the American people and the political spectrum are at the center,” and given that the party already dominates liberal districts, those likely to be elected to the Democratic Caucus now and in the future will be moderates.

Democratic subgroups within the Caucus — conservative Blue Dogs and centrist New Democrats — are also taking on a heightened policy and political role, with the latter group recently reorganizing in the hopes of regaining influence in the Caucus.

Add to that the feeling among many centrists that they are being bypassed for key committee assignments and have long faced questions about their commitment to the party. One aide said while it’s unclear how things will play out, there is a recipe in place for the frustrations of conservative and moderate Democrats to explode.

“There’s a lot of little things that are converging,” said the staffer. “How far it’s going to go, I don’t know.”

But another Democratic source countered: “We aren’t going to win by being Republican lite. If we’re going to be the opposition party, let’s be an opposition party.”

One leadership aide, however, downplayed talk that there is any new or enhanced strife in the Caucus, saying the minority always suffers through its share of tensions while trying to win back power because of its diversity.

The staffer added it’s “complete bulls—” to accuse Pelosi or the leadership of failing to provide direction. Republicans, the aide said, are trying to highlight Democratic differences on votes to try to weaken them as they suffer through charges of ethical wrongdoing and ill-thought-out policies like Social Security overhaul.

“On every issue we are together, this is just a few things,” said the staffer. “It is absurd.”

Pelosi allies said the Minority Leader has done a solid job leading from the middle and recognizing the “big tent” nature of her Caucus. They also stressed that on the major topics of the 109th — changes to the ethics rules and focusing on Republicans’ “abuse” of power, Social Security reform and the GOP budget proposal — Democrats are 100 percent together.

“This is always the case,” said the leadership aide. “There is always tension between the different ideological factions. They always bubble up. People make their point, but overall, there is a great deal of unity, and unity is our strength and we need to focus on what unites us, not divides us.”

Sources throughout the Caucus said that’s the message Pelosi and Hoyer tried to deliver at the meeting Thursday, which was described as “heated” and “very unpleasant.” Sources said both Pelosi and Hoyer were also visibly angry.

Sources said liberal Members at the whip meeting were furious at moderates and accused them of selling out to special interests on the bankruptcy bill. Pelosi also joined in voicing her displeasure, expressing particular frustration at the New Democrat Coalition for writing a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) urging him to bring the bankruptcy bill to the floor.

One source in the room said Pelosi’s comments “picked the scab off the rift” that was already there when she further alienated moderates, who were already prepared to be more forceful and outspoken in the Caucus.

“Pelosi had an obligation to pull everyone together when it became clear a rift was developing,” said the source. “Instead, she chose not to do that.”

But a Pelosi ally said the Minority Leader simply spoke her mind and wanted to make clear it was inappropriate for Members, despite their support for the bill, to urge the Republicans to bring it up.

“People were very unhappy about the bankruptcy bill,” said the staffer. “Pelosi was very unhappy about it. She just said, ‘You have to examine your conscience of why you did it.’”

Another knowledgeable aide suggested Hoyer should accept more of the blame. “I think Hoyer is fueling this in part because of the vote on bankruptcy and knowing that the leader is so outspoken on this.”

Hoyer urged Members at the private meeting to “accentuate the positive” of what Democrats agree upon rather than focus on the fact that some Members voted against the party on several bills.

The Minority Whip also suggested that the split on the bankruptcy bill was not unusual in this session. Beyond bankruptcy, Democrats have also fractured this Congress on class-action reform, the estate tax and energy policy, all issues that have led to a divide in Democratic votes in the past.

The recent dissension, however, has struck an obvious chord. Some suggested that perhaps House Democrats, under the new leadership of Pelosi and Hoyer, hit new records for unity in the 108th Congress. The Members were also energized over a presidential election and the chance to at least make gains in the House.

Sources suggested that the setbacks in November changed the dynamics for House Democrats. Attendance at many party meetings is lower, participation in House Democratic activities is down, and Members generally appear to be taking a more individualistic approach to legislating this Congress, sources said. It’s perhaps not that frustrations between the different factions of the Caucus are higher than usual; it’s simply that Members are focused on themselves rather than the party itself.

“People generally feel a majority is more out of our reach,” said one well-placed staffer.