Centrists May Rise Next Year

Posted August 3, 2010 at 6:24pm

Moderate House Democrats who survive the November midterms believe they will find themselves in a much stronger position in the 112th Congress, particularly if Democrats hang on to the House with a slim operating majority.

Although liberals almost certainly will constitute a greater percentage of the Democratic Caucus after the elections — Democratic losses being more likely to come from swing districts held by moderates — centrists see an opportunity for their influence to grow rather than diminish next year.

The reason is simple: Democratic leaders would have fewer votes to spare and would be unlikely to get much help from Republicans, who would be gunning for a House takeover in 2012.

As a result, moderate Democrats anticipate that they would be in the position to exert more influence over legislation next year than they have this Congress.

“I don’t believe the moderates will change their positions at all, and so if it requires 218 votes to pass a bill, then the bills will have to fit that mold,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a moderate California Democrat who acts as a liaison between his leadership and the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

“Members don’t change their views. They stick to them because their constituents expect them to, and they notice shifts. My experience has been that Members don’t shift because the majority shifts, the majority shifts because the Members stay the same.”

Only by browbeating some moderates to go along with them were House Democratic leaders able to muscle most of the party’s major initiatives — from climate change to health care to the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — through the chamber this session. But they also had a large enough majority to let some moderates slide.

That’s a luxury leaders may not have come January, and a number of moderates said they would welcome a situation in which leaders needed to court them more heavily.

“I hope we would move the pendulum back toward the middle. … I certainly hope that will be the case,” said Rep. Gene Taylor, a moderate Mississippi Democrat.

Taylor echoed a common refrain when he said he has been frustrated this Congress because he felt like Democratic leaders had moved too far left and that he hoped moderates in both parties would exert more leverage next year.

“I think the best legislation that we pass has a mixture of Democrats and Republicans voting for it,” he said.

One moderate Democratic lawmaker said many middle-of-the-road Democrats were optimistic that a slimmer majority could force Democratic leaders to seek the “sensible center” moderates felt has been ignored this Congress. Part of that effort would involve a more genuine attempt to garner Republican votes rather than trying to force all of the votes to come from within the Democratic Caucus, the lawmaker said.

“It’d be much easier to get 218 votes … by kicking down the barrier between the two parties,” the lawmaker said.

The ability of a smaller Democratic majority to round up GOP votes may be diminished if — as some political experts predict — the elections bring more hard-line conservatives and tea party members into the Republican Conference.

In that scenario, the votes of those moderate Democrats who survive would be the most sought-after in the House.

Although liberals might balk at moderates driving legislation more toward the middle, recent history suggests that a revolt would be unlikely — at least initially. During the debate over health care, for example, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus griped when the Senate dropped the public option and the House added restrictive abortion language, but they ultimately supported the bill.

That dynamic is playing out already, as Democratic leaders encourage frustrated liberal groups and lawmakers to support moderates despite their defections, arguing that the more seats Democrats lose, the more legislation will have to be tilted toward the center.

“You have a 10-vote margin, you basically have to go back to the same people every time,” a senior Democratic aide explained. “Obviously, they can demand very high prices for those votes because we only have so many people to go to.”

Thirty-four Democrats opposed the final version of the health care bill in March, and 44 Democrats opposed the climate change bill in June 2009.

Another complicating factor for Democratic leaders is that they likely would not be the only ones courting their moderates. If Democrats had a razor-thin majority, some Republicans have suggested that they, too, would seek to peel off Democrats.

“I think that there will be a real opportunity to find conservative Democrats to join with us as part of a coalition to govern,” Rep. Fred Upton said. The Michigan Republican added that within the Democratic ranks there are “a lot of upset folks about being forced to vote for the cap-and-trade bill.”

Cardoza said there was “general frustration” among moderates that they were asked to vote on bills — like the climate change legislation — that have not seen action in the Senate.

“The membership does not want to see us vote on stuff that will put them in a difficult position, only to see it not be voted on in the Senate,” he said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer recently downplayed the idea that the Democratic Caucus would be more fractured if Democrats lose a significant number of seats in November and said a smaller majority could be easier for Democratic leaders to hold together.

“The larger your majority, the less sense of unity you have,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters last week. “The psychology of consensus is stronger the smaller the majority you have.”

At the leadership level, however, Republican leaders say it’s unlikely that Democrats will move toward the center, even if they lose a lot of seats.

“Even a narrow Democrat majority would still have the ability to move the big-government, liberal agenda of this administration,” Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said. “They’ve demonstrated the ability and the willingness to pass unpopular legislation by narrow majorities so House Republicans believe the only way to change the direction of the Congress is to change control of the Congress.”