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'Purple power' pulls new laws through House

Many Democrats from moderate districts vote with the Republicans on House measures.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 1, 2005


Despite the partisan saber- rattling on Capitol Hill, a significant number of votes in the GOP-controlled House are passing with broad Democratic support.

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It's a trend that surprises analysts who have noticed the numbers, and it hints at a structural advantage for the GOP as it presses its agenda heading into 2006 elections.

Call it purple power. Although Republican control of the House of Representatives is narrow - a margin of just 30 seats out of 435 total - some 20 percent of House Democrats come from districts that President Bush carried in 2004. Only 8 percent of Republicans come from districts carried by Sen. John Kerry in the presidential vote. In a landscape where most districts are clearly red (Republican) or blue (Democrat), these purple areas represent seats that could be vulnerable.

That looming reality, analysts say, is one of the factors that explains why some Democrats have crossed over to vote with the GOP on issues from tax cuts to abortion.

"For all the focus we've put ... on the growing rift in the Republican discipline, we need to also take a look at how tough it is on the Democratic side, especially for incumbents who sit in Republican districts," says Amy Walter, a congressional analyst for the Cook Political Report.

Wide range of issues at stake

The recent votes with Democratic support include issues backed by pro-business lobbyists: $70 billion in tax-cut provisions in the fiscal 2006 budget resolution, tightening rules for people who file for bankruptcy protection, and limiting class-action lawsuits. Democrats have also lined up with Republicans on some issues important to social conservatives: strict requirements for the use of driver's licenses as IDs and for parental notification when a minor crosses state lines to get an abortion.

On a bankruptcy bill that Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said would create "modern-day indentured servants," 73 Democrats voted with the Republican majority. Fifty Democrats voted with GOP leaders on class-action reform; 42 on tightening requirements for driver's licenses, 42 for a permanent repeal of the estate tax, 41 on the energy bill, 71 on a gang deterrence bill l that some Democrats said unfairly targeted immigrants, and 54 on abortion notification.

For many of these votes, about half of the Democratic swing support came from the so-called purple-district Democrats, who may be positioning themselves for the 2006 elections.

Support is also coming from some members of the congressional black caucus, which traditionally has given Democrats the strongest party-line voting records in the House.

GOP leaders say it's a sign that their agenda is able to win broad, bipartisan support, even in a highly polarized environment. "It's a sign that we're pursuing good public policy, in the mainstream," says Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

In response, Democratic leaders note that none of the votes with big defections from their ranks were designated as party-line votes. "On the issues that make Democrats Democrats, we are strongly united, such as strengthening Social Security, protecting the environment, education, healthcare, and national security," says Jennifer Crider, a spokesman for Democratic leader Pelosi. "On the big fights, Democrats stick together."