In a major shift aimed at the 2006 midterm elections, House Democrats are suddenly closing ranks on big votes, forcing an embattled Republican leadership to eke out victories, where they can, on their own.
On three big votes recently - the energy bill, the FY 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education spending bill, and a budget reconciliation bill aimed at $49.5 billion in spending cuts - not a single Democrat voted with Republicans.
It's a sea change from votes as recent as last spring. Back then, 73 Democrats backed a bankruptcy bill that their leader Nancy Pelosi said would create "modern-day indentured servants." Fifty of them supported GOP efforts to reform class-action lawsuits. And 42 voted for a permanent repeal of the estate tax, dubbed "reverse Robin Hood" by Ms. Pelosi.
"The single biggest development of the year has been in the last few weeks: The decision by Democratic House moderates to align themselves and their futures with Pelosi and [Democratic whip Steny] Hoyer," says Michael Franc, vice president for governmental relations at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
In political shorthand, it means that so-called purple Democrats are voting blue, making it tougher for the GOP controlled House to pass its agenda. The new unity in Democratic ranks also exposes more Republican moderates to tough votes that could hurt them in their districts.
Forty-one House Democrats come from districts that President Bush carried in 2004, compared with only eight Republicans in districts that John Kerry won. The result: Purple Democrats, some of whom campaigned on their ties to Mr. Bush in 2004, have had to worry about reprisals when they voted against the White House.
With Bush's sagging approval ratings, that anxiety is much less of a concern, say analysts.
"Democrats have become more disciplined in making the case against Republicans," says Amy Walter, who analyzes House elections for the Cook Political Report.
"When the political environment is such as it is today, it makes it easier for Democrats to be able to stick together. Aligning yourself with the president is not the asset it was last year or two or three years ago," she adds.
That same logic is putting pressure on Republican moderates to distance themselves from an unpopular president on issues such as tax cuts, social spending, and the environment. Without the votes of purple Democrats, House GOP leaders now have to pay more attention to the demands of moderates in their own caucus.
House moderates last week forced the GOP leadership to drop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a price for support of the FY 2006 Budget Reconciliation bill, which passed on a 217-215 vote. And, in a move that stunned House Republican leaders, GOP moderates joined Democrats in voting down the FY 2006 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill - the first time a conference report has been defeated in the House in a decade.
"If this trend continues, it suggests a very different 2006," says Mr. Franc. "If Republicans enter the year on the working assumption that they're not going to pick up any meaningful support on the Democratic side on anything, they're going to have to figure out whether to lean toward the middle to get the bulk on board, or get into a Lord-of-the-Flies situation where they start tossing each other off the cliff."
During the Oct. 7 vote on the "Gasoline for America's Security Act," Democratic leaders successfully pressured three in their caucus to change their votes in favor of the bill, which passed 212-210, with no Democratic votes. "We said, 'Do you really want to be the only Democratic vote for this bill,' " said Mr. Hoyer, in comments to reporters after the vote.
In the past, Bush and GOP strategists have been able to use such votes against the White House against Democrats. In 2004, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle lost his seat in South Dakota, a state the president carried, on a campaign charging that he obstructed the president's agenda.
Republican strategists say that purple Demo- crats could face the same fate, should the president's approval ratings rebound or their votes be seen as too far from the values of their districts.
For example, Democrats who have supported the Bush tax cuts in the past face such a vote when the next round of tax cuts come to the floor, as early as December.
"If a Democrat like Gene Taylor [of Mississippi] votes against tax cuts or the president's efforts to cut the deficit, say, 15 times, that's a TV ad: Please stop voting at Nancy Pelosi's direction. Please vote your district," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, an anti-tax group.
"His district thinks he goes to Washington and fights people like Pelosi and the San Francisco liberals. These Democrats [in conservative districts] are fooling themselves if they think no one is watching," he adds.
But Democrats say it could be GOP moderates that suffer in midterm elections, unless they join Democrats in opposing the Bush agenda.
"The only way we have any power is if we stick together. We have to make the Republican moderates take the tough votes, and then use their votes against them," says Brendan Daly, a spokesman for the Democratic leadership.