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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.

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“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.

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“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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