House Democrats Seeking Answers

Posted January 20, 2010 at 6:57pm

With the rubble of the Democratic collapse in Massachusetts still smoldering Wednesday, House Democratic leaders paused to let the smoke clear and assess the damage to their already-weakened political prospects.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), frequently a blunt instrument hammering her Members to move an enormously ambitious agenda, spent the day in listening mode with key constituencies, gathering reactions to the Bay State blowout and soliciting ideas from her rank and file about how to reconnect with an electorate that has turned aggressively against incumbents.

The talks centered on the path forward for health care reform, which just days ago seemed a sure bet for a landmark legislative achievement but has been thrown into doubt by Republican Scott Brown’s come-from-behind victory that will end Senate Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. But Pelosi also sought input on a range of other items, from deficit reduction to ethics reform.

And she and her lieutenants sought to calm fears — on the rise before Tuesday and spiking in its wake — of an impending wave election sweeping Democrats from power. In the series of Wednesday huddles, the top House Democrat sought to reassure Members that certain developments fueling public anger — like a tax on high-cost health care plans opposed by labor unions and a carve-out deal that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) engineered for his state — were specific to the Senate bill and would be cleaned up in whatever final product lawmakers negotiate.

House Democratic strategists made the case to lawmakers that the party is prepared for a tough election. “House Democrats have been preparing since day one last year for what we knew historically would be a very challenging election cycle,— according to a memo, obtained by Roll Call, that went out to Democratic Members on Tuesday night, immediately after Brown’s victory.

[IMGCAP(1)]Democratic strategists expected a few more House retirements before votes were cast in the Bay State and now are doing their best to get out in front of their Members who are sitting on the retirement fence and could be discouraged by Tuesday’s results.

Compounding personal considerations about tough re-election fights is the worry — remote but not impossible — that House Democrats could lose their majority. “There is a concern on that,— Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said. “And I think you’re foolish if you don’t think about it. … If you’re not listening to it, shame on you, you’ll find out.—

The Speaker broadcast her intent to absorb the lessons of the Massachusetts balloting in a Wednesday morning speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Heeding the particular concerns of the voters of Massachusetts, we heard, we will heed, we will move forward with their considerations in mind. But we will move forward,— Pelosi said.

Freshman Democrats made clear to the Speaker that they want the way forward to include new action on ethics and transparency reforms. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.) suggested lawmakers take a pay cut, while Reps. Jim Himes (Conn.) and Tom Perriello (Va.) spoke out in favor of restrictions on fundraising from earmark recipients.

“Near the top of voters’ list is their anger at Washington over issues of trust and integrity,— Himes said. “They want to know that we don’t treat each other any differently than we treat them.—

Freshmen also pressed the Speaker on the possibility of speeding several lagging ethics investigations into powerful Democrats. “I think that there is a lot of desire to have these things done,— Perriello said. “And there is also a desire to have them be seen as fair, without any interference from the outside. So that’s the balance.—

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the president of the freshman Democratic class, said his message to Pelosi was that Democrats need to do a better job of linking fiscal responsibility to anything they do. “If that message of fiscal responsibility is not loud and clear and convincing, then it will poison our agenda. And you just saw that in Massachusetts. … I hope that is sinking in with key members of our Caucus,— Connolly said.

The Speaker acknowledged in her talk to the mayors that the party needs to do a better job explaining itself to voters angry about government spending. “Clearly, the election results last night spell out that we have not been as clear about our deficit reduction measures. … And that will change,— Pelosi said.

On top of regularly scheduled meetings with the freshmen and sophomores, Pelosi and her leadership team huddled Wednesday afternoon with Blue Dogs and progressives — sessions that one aide described as aimed at “temperature taking.—

Democrats have some recent successes in the field and some technical advantages that they can point to in making the case to their Members that all is not lost. The three-page memo that circulated to Members on Tuesday detailed House Democrats’ plans for 2010, including working with vulnerable “Frontline— program Members and staying on offense in GOP seats. The memo also pointed out the party’s success in recent House special elections, highlighting the takeover in New York’s 23rd district last November as a road map to persuading independent voters.

Democrats are determined to use the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s financial advantage and their individual incumbents’ financial edge to create district-specific “political environments— that set up a choice between the Democratic and Republican candidates.

“Elections are about choices,— according to DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen, who echoed the memo’s main points in his post-election statement. “And this year’s Midterms will be a choice between continuing the economic progress and independent leadership that House Democrats are delivering for their districts versus Republicans who are eager to turn back the clock to the same failed Bush-Cheney policies that brought our economy to the brink of collapse.—

Nathan L. Gonzales, Steven T. Dennis and Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.