Waxman Coup Worries Moderates

Posted November 7, 2008 at 6:44pm

Facing the prospect of a liberal surge in House Democratic senior ranks, party moderates in the Blue Dog and New Democrats coalitions are banding together to make sure centrist lawmakers prevail in two critical internal fights.

Leaders of the two groups were in talks last week to plot rallying support for Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) in his bid to beat back a challenge for his gavel from liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and to enlist Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), a New Democrats leader, to run for the vice chairmanship of the Caucus.

The coordination marks a departure for the groups, which have not traditionally worked together, and a shared fear that with Democrats preparing to take control of all levers of political power, moderates could get steamrolled by emboldened liberals.

“We’re very concerned about the direction that some are trying to move our majority,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), Blue Dog co-chairman for communications.

Leaders of both groups were working the phones last week to round up support for Dingell, the 27-term dean of the House, in his counteroffensive against Waxman’s surprise challenge. Ross and Reps. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.), both senior Blue Dogs, joined Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the New Democrats, on Dingell’s 26-member team.

“There are definitely conversations going on” among leaders of the groups to find support within their respective ranks for Dingell, a senior New Democrats aide said.

Dingell and Waxman aides alike are trying to frame their contest as centered on who will make the most effective legislator — and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), an ally of both, likewise played down the notion that the fight will highlight an ideological rift in the Caucus. But Dingell, an ardent defender of his home-state auto industry, and Waxman, an ally of environmentalists, have taken dramatically different approaches to climate change and energy issues in the past — debates expected to be prominent next year.

It is not yet clear how strongly New Democrats will rally to Dingell’s defense. With 60 members, they present a vote-rich source of support. But the group emphasizes green technology and high-tech innovation — priorities that are at times at odds with the manufacturing base Dingell champions.

Leaders of the groups are working together to draft Crowley into a leadership bid.

Ross said he and other Blue Dog leaders called Crowley last week and encouraged him to jump into the race for the Caucus vice-chairmanship, the fifth-ranking slot in leadership. Crowley, who lost a bid for that post in early 2006, has not yet announced whether he will run. So far, Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) have entered the race. Also thought to be eyeing the race are Reps. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).

Crowley is not a Blue Dog, but Ross said members of his group understand that the New Yorker would be their best shot at adding a moderate to the leadership team. It reflects a recognition that Blue Dogs themselves, mainly white Southerners from rural districts, can’t run one of their own and hope to win over a majority of a heavily diverse Caucus representing mostly urban and suburban areas.

With a Crowley bid, the moderate faction would in effect be hoping to recover a leadership seat they are losing with the exit of Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) — a New Democrat with razor-sharp instincts. Emanuel announced last week he is quitting the House to take a job as President-elect Obama’s chief of staff.

Taken together, the contests present key tests of an unformed alliance between the groups that could prove a force in the next Congress. But much remains in the air. The groups have at times struggled to maintain unity within their own ranks. And it is not yet clear how they would work together to shape the agenda next year.

Aside from broadly centrist tendencies, the two groups don’t have much in common. While most Blue Dogs represent socially conservative, rural districts, most New Democrats hail from socially progressive, suburban districts. On policy, Blue Dogs are fiscal hawks that have been singularly focused on defending pay-as-you-go budgeting rules. New Democrats have trained their attention on promoting free trade and a high-tech agenda. They mostly backed the Wall Street bailout, which split the Blue Dogs, and are now focused on regulatory modernization of the financial markets.

“I can’t even wrap my brain around how that would work in an Obama administration,” a senior New Democrats aide said. “There will be conversations, but it’s premature right now.”

Ross said the groups will work in concert to prevent a liberal overreach that would spell a repeat of the mistakes Democrats made in the early 1990s. “We’re not going to be the most popular folks in our party, but we’re going to ensure that we as a party govern from the middle and not the extremes,” he said. “And we’ve got the votes to keep that from happening.”

Against the backdrop of the ideological rift, the fight over the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce panel continued to rage on Friday, with both sides deploying their whip teams to sew up support among their colleagues.

While Waxman’s announcement last week caught Dingell flat-footed, whispers of a coup attempt by the Californian have persisted in Dingell circles for months. In June, in a move Dingell allies insist was unrelated, the Michigan Democrat backed off his longtime resistance to opening a leadership political action committee and founded the Wolverine PAC. Corporate donations poured in, and Dingell tapped the funds to spread about $80,000 to moderate incumbents and challengers, according to CQ MoneyLine.

Waxman has been using his own account to engender goodwill with colleagues for considerably longer. While Dingell is one of the most recent Democrats to kick off such a fund, Waxman was the first House lawmaker to open a leadership PAC, founding his L.A. PAC in the late 1970s to boost his bid for a subcommittee gavel. Waxman used the account to dole out about $238,000 to Democrats this cycle.