'Purple power' pulls new laws through House

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

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

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."

But the 2006 electoral landscape is clearly coloring decisions on which votes come to be defined as defining for Democrats, analysts say. And it's giving the GOP House leadership more scope for moving its own agenda, with or without cooperation from Democratic leadership.

"If they're a Democrat from a red district, they have to be looking over their shoulders all the time, and [these votes] are a good way to demonstrate to the Republican-leaning independents in their districts that they have indeed sided with the GOP on a certain number of leading issues," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

"Why would the Democratic leadership lean on their vulnerable members?" he adds. "They are going to reserve the pressure for a few matters that really matter - and Social Security is the most obvious."

In addition to the electoral calculus, business groups have worked with Republican leaders to build support for issues such as tax cuts, bankruptcy reform, and class-action reform from the grass roots, especially targeting vulnerable Democrats.

More than half of the Democratic votes for repeal of the estate tax, dubbed by Republicans the "death tax," came from Democrats in districts that Bush carried in 2004.

Similarly, nearly half the votes for bankruptcy overhaul and class-action reform came from this same 20 percent of the Democratic caucus.

"In the House, everybody needs a record every two years," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, which spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying for a law to shift class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts. "If the only thing your party stands for is obstruction, there's not much to run on. [Former Senate Democratic leader Tom] Daschle learned that last year," Mr. Josten says.

Republicans also buck leaders

Last week's vote to lift federal restrictions on stem-cell research marked a critical mass of Republicans also willing to buck their leadership - and to buck President Bush, who he'll veto the bill. The 50 Republicans who voted against this bill included more than half of those in districts won by Kerry in 2004.

"When the klieg lights are turned off, and no one is watching, it's amazing how much bipartisanship you can find on Capitol Hill," says Michael Frank, a congressional analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Democrats who have supported GOP positions say it's a mistake to interpret their votes as a broad endorsement of the Republican agenda.

"Most of these Democratic votes were to protect themselves from attacks for being weak on crime or taxes - not out of affection for Republican or their agenda," says Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, who is working with Congressman Dreier to build bipartisan support for CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

Democratic support will be critical if the president is to win this vote, because many Republicans from manufacturing states hit by existing free-trade agreements plan to oppose it. "A lot of Democrats feel that the CAFTA votes is important for Central America, but don't want to go on record until the last minute because of fear that opposition from the Democratic leadership and its allies will make political life miserable for the next few months," he says.

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