Majority Tamed on Platform

Posted July 28, 2008 at 6:26pm

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) will face a roomful of competing priorities when he addresses House Democrats this morning. And though the famously fractious Caucus is larger now than it has been in more than a decade, Congressional Democrats said with the White House in view, they are aiming to minimize intraparty squabbles in the interest of a common victory in November.

“Our task is: Get elected, change this administration,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has led calls to withdraw from Iraq.

Congressional Democrats are in a far different position than just four years ago when they were in the minority in the House and Senate and faced an uphill climb to winning back the White House. At that time, Democratic lawmakers found themselves at odds over many policy priorities — particularly the Iraq War — as well as the overall direction of the party.

“There was [more of] an ambivalence in terms of the issues in 2004 than there is today,” Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) explained. “There was a sense that we weren’t quite sure on a whole host of substantive issues.”

Congressional Democrats spent much of the runup to the Boston convention angling to get on the radar of then-presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). From a pullout from Iraq to comprehensive immigration reform to a middle-class tax cut, House and Senate Democrats were privately and publicly making the case for their ideas to be incorporated into his agenda.

Fast-forward to 2008, Congressional Democrats appear to have left much of the platform jockeying behind. Lawmakers say they feel unified as a party this year and share Obama’s top priorities of resolving the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, tackling the nation’s energy and economic woes and overhauling the country’s health care system.

Asked why there seems to be so much unity behind Obama’s agenda, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said: “It’s called, ‘We want to win.’ We are determined not to screw this one up.”

Leaders of the different wings of the party still have their priorities they are pressing the Obama campaign to emphasize on the campaign trail and working to get included in the party platform.

Blue Dogs, for example, want the candidate to make a firm commitment to supporting pay-as-you-go budget rules. Obama’s campaign Web site lists enforcing the principle as the first item in his plan to “restore fiscal discipline to Washington.” But Blue Dog lawmakers note that Obama could go a step further by getting behind the group’s longtime drive to enshrine the budgeting requirement in law.

“Two words: fiscal responsibility,” said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition. “If we don’t right our own ship, we can’t do these other things.” Boyd said while Blue Dogs “think Obama recognizes that,” they will push so-called statutory PAYGO at an upcoming meeting with the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Members of the “Tri-Caucus” — made up of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — want the campaign to address health care gaps that afflict minority populations. “One of our major priorities is health care disparities because too many of the people we represent suffer needlessly and die early because of them,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), a senior CBC member. “We want to see him take on that issue as one of his priorities,” a sentiment echoed by members of CAPAC and the CHC.

The anti-war group Win Without War has attracted the signatures of 58 House Democrats and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for a petition calling for the party platform to advocate a complete withdrawal from Iraq, a “robust diplomatic surge” in the region, an end to the use of torture, and closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

“We want change not just for the sake of change. We want real change, substantive change, and the kind of change Sen. Obama’s been talking about,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), one of the organizers of the drive. “I think it’s important the platform be clear and unequivocal, that we not be fuzzy on these issues. … If you’re going to have a platform, it should mean something.”

The New Democrat Coalition, a moderate, pro-business group, wants Obama to focus on economic competitiveness and breaking the logjam on free-trade agreements. “Centrist Democrats are going to be key to his overall message, and that’s where we’re looking to pick up a lot of seats as well,” an aide to one New Democrat said.

Several Democrats pointed out that the party is mostly united on substance, differing instead on what deserves the emphasis. They argued Republicans face a tougher task forging their agenda, since Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP nominee, is at odds with conservative activists in his party on global warming, immigration, stem-cell research and campaign finance reform.

To reflect the breadth of Democratic priorities, Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.), vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the party should draft a lengthy platform. “Maybe that platform is more expansive than Kerry’s in Boston,” he said. “You have to take in as much information as possible. If you’re going on the issue of change, you can’t whittle down suggestions and not get the full meaning of every group’s concept.”

McGovern recommended the opposite approach — concision. “It should be clear, it should be readable, and it should be usable so if someone wants to know what this campaign is about, they can use it,” he said.

That process will continue playing out this week, when the Platform Drafting Committee meets Friday for a national hearing. It will draft the platform over the next two days and will meet to recommend its adoption on Aug. 9.

No matter its final shape, Democratic lawmakers predicted little grousing from their ranks.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), Obama’s closest Senate ally, said he hasn’t “heard any dissenters in my Caucus” over what Obama’s priorities should be for the next four years. He credited his Illinois colleague for reaching out early on to solicit policy ideas and proposals from House and Senate Democrats when putting together his presidential blueprint.

“First, we want to win,” Durbin explained. “Second, most of us feel Barack has been open. People feel he’s approachable.”

Wyden said Obama’s campaign has been receptive to his ideas, particularly on health care policy, and “deserves a lot of credit for reaching out” to Capitol Hill as he assembles the pieces of his agenda. Wyden said that while there may still be some differences of opinion on the best path forward, most Democratic lawmakers feel they’ve had a seat at the table.

“We’ve learned a lot from past approaches in terms of working with Congress,” Wyden said.