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

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

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.

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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.

“It was punitive toward small businesses, and it paid for reform by raising taxes rather than by squeezing the inefficiencies out of and modernizing our healthcare system,” said Rep. Jason Altmire (D) of Pennsylvania in a postvote statement. “Until we rein in skyrocketing healthcare costs, we will simply be perpetuating an inefficient system that is unsustainable over time.”

Two days after the healthcare vote, the liberal activist group MoveOn.org Political Action launched television ads targeting seven lawmakers who voted against healthcare – six of them Democrats.

Besides Mr. Altmire, the other Democrats were Reps. Mike Ross of Arkansas, Glenn Nye of Virginia, Rick Boucher of Virginia, and Larry Kissell and Heath Shuler of North Carolina.

Freshmen facing the toughest reelection bids weren’t pressured to fall on their swords on this vote.

“After carefully reviewing this legislation and hearing from thousands of Coloradans across my district, I could not support this bill,” said freshman Rep. Betsy Markey (D) of Colorado in a statement. Ms. Markey, who faces a tough reelection race in 2010, is the first Democrat to hold the seat since 1973. This “majority maker” got a pass on this vote – and a hug from Speaker Pelosi on the floor.

Limits on abortion

Among the toughest negotiations was a call from social conservatives in the Democratic caucus to strengthen restrictions on funding abortion services in healthcare reform.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan, who cosponsored the amendment with Rep. Joe Pitts (R) of Pennsylvania, claimed 40 Democrats willing to vote down the bill over this issue. At the 11th hour, Pelosi agreed to allow a floor vote on the amendment, which passed 240-194. Sixty-four Democrats joined all Republicans in adding these restrictions to the House bill, including 35 red-district Democrats. In all, 56 percent of Democrats who opposed healthcare reform also voted in favor of this amendment.

After the vote, abortion rights Democrats announced that they have more than 40 votes against the final version of the bill, if the Senate fails to remove this provision in conference.

Climate change

Most of the Democrats who opposed healthcare reform also voted against the majority on climate-change legislation, which narrowly passed the House, 219 to 212, on June 26. As with previous energy bills, fault lines in the vote reflect regional interests – notably, whether the region depends on coal for electricity – rather than strict party identification. But the more conservative ideology of the “majority makers” did play a role.

“When Democrats expanded their base in 2006 and ’08, they brought in Democrats who represent very different constituencies. They are far more independent-minded, more moderate in ideology, and more pragmatic,” says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll. “It’s making a big difference in key votes.

“On issues like climate change,” he adds, “there’s a real fear on the part of many of these [new] Democrats that by meddling with the cap-and-trade system, you weaken the power of firms to compete and eventually we’ll be deep in recession and debt.”

Managing the big tent

The strategy of reaching into GOP districts to expand the Democratic majority faces its starkest test as leaders try to rally a diverse caucus around major controversial bills.

“Persuasion will only work to a limited extent. These are Democrats who are ideologically opposed to what the White House wants, and the only option [Democratic leaders] have is to lean on them,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “But there is a timidity in the speaker’s office of using that power and great fear of [the House] tipping back to the Republicans, as it did in 1994.”

Questioned often on this point, Pelosi says managing a bigger tent is a challenge she’s glad to have, given the alternative. She still meets weekly with the freshman class of 2008 and, separately, with the class of 2006. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has set up a designated funding stream to help Democrats in marginal seats.

“She has always said: You represent your district, but you also try to find consensus within the caucus,” says Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Pelosi.

On the prospects of social Democrats bringing down healthcare reform over the abortion issue, he adds: “There is always this prevailing Washington wisdom that this hurdle is going to be the highest and you can’t overcome it. But through building consensus with the caucus we have gotten over those hurdles.”

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See also:

Will Senate Democrats' healthcare reform tradeoffs seal the deal?

Nelson amendment fails, but healthcare abortion battle isn't over

Was Obama's promise of a post-partisan era ever possible?

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