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Democrats' 'big tent' faces challenges from conservative members

Newly elected moderate and conservative Democrats helped the party build a ‘big tent’ majority in the House. But those very same members – worrying about 2010 elections – are threatening Democrats' majority on major votes.

By Staff writer / December 9, 2009

Pelosi: Speaker’s ‘majority makers’ now challenge Democrats’ plans.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

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Washington

House Democrats fought their way back to power in 2006 and expanded their majority in 2008 by recruiting candidates who could win in conservative districts – a strategy that’s coming back to bite them as they try to move a sweeping legislative agenda.

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The “majority makers,” as Speaker Nancy Pelosi dubbed them, fit the moderate-to-conservative districts they aimed to win. They railed on big government, spending, and taxes. Some challenged the merits of government regulation, called for more limits on abortion rights, opposed any softening of illegal immigration policy, or appeared in photos toting rifles.

Now, with legacy bills for Democrats on the line, many are voting that way. On issues ranging from healthcare and climate change to social issues, the “majority makers” often find themselves challenging the very majority they helped to create.

At the same time, big bills on healthcare, climate change, and Wall Street regulation could spell the demise of Democrats’ majority in the 2010 elections, if conservative Democrats lose for voting outside the comfort zones of their districts. The influence of these Democrats in shaping key legislation is leading some traditional Democratic constituencies – such as consumer watchdogs – to express dismay over what's emerging from bill-crafting House committees.

“What these votes do is form an overall impression in voters’ minds on whether these members are too liberal for the district. I see these as tone-setting issues for 2010,” says David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report in Washington.

Of 48 races ranked by the Cook Political Report as competitive in 2010, 36 are held by Democrats. In another 60 potentially competitive races, Democrats hold 45 of those seats, as well.

Democrats are in a bind,” says Mr. Wasserman. To hold the House in 2010, “they have to juice up their own base and retain independent voters.”

With the balance in the House at 258 Democrats to 177 Republicans, the majority has some leeway to indulge dissent from its restive right wing. But leaders still need 218 votes to move a reform agenda. With the GOP closing ranks on important votes, Democrats can afford only 40 defections on big votes. For now, conservative or moderate Democrats from red districts are claiming most of them – and then some.

Of the 39 House Democrats who opposed healthcare legislation in a Nov. 7 vote, 31 represent districts that backed GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008. Four others were elected by districts that voted for George W. Bush in 2004. The bill passed, 220 to 215.

The big issues for most dissenting Democrats were the overall cost and concern that the bill did not do enough to rein in health costs in the longer term.