2008 VOTE RATINGS
A Congressional Coalition Is Harder To Puzzle Out
Piecing together winning coalitions of 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate is no easy task.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., pushed hard last year to allow bankruptcy judges to modify mortgage terms for people in danger of losing their homes. Business groups shoved back against the liberal proposal, arguing that it would force up interest rates for all mortgages. When Durbin's push came to their shove, the No. 2 Senate Democrat was unable to muster enough support for passage. Acknowledging failure, he called for a vote in April that he knew he would lose. Ultimately, 10 moderate Democrats and Sen. Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., joined all 47 present Republicans to kill Durbin's proposal, 58-36.
The vote -- one of 76 key votes in the Senate and 78 key votes in the House that National Journal used to rank members of Congress on a conservative-to-liberal scale for our 2008 vote ratings -- illustrates the knotty politics that Durbin and other lawmakers face as they seek to build winning coalitions. Securing the entire liberal bloc in either chamber, as Durbin did, risks not only alienating the increasingly conservative Republican ranks but also splitting the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Yet, as other votes last year demonstrated, gaining the support of moderate Democrats can cost the backing of their liberal brethren, who may cross over to vote with unified conservatives if proposals move too far to the right.
The ratings also show that winning broad bipartisan support of the sort that Barack Obama promised on the campaign trail is an even more daunting proposition. Especially in the Senate, many of the moderate Republicans who most frequently sided with Democrats last year either retired or lost re-election. That leaves the ideological split between the two parties deeper than it was during the 110th Congress.
"It's a new battleground," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told National Journal when asked about building winning coalitions this year. "President Obama put it well: There have been years and years of partisanship, and it's hard to break the barriers and mistrust down, but we'll keep at it."
Although the lame-duck President Bush and the congressional Democratic majority enacted few major bills amid all of the election-year rancor, the past session yielded plenty of votes that showed divisions within and between the two parties. Going forward, it will be critical for Obama and House and Senate Democratic leaders to overcome the challenges illustrated by National Journal's 2008 vote ratings if they are to pass their agenda, whether in a bipartisan way or with only Democratic support.
National Journal has compiled the congressional vote ratings since 1981 under a system designed by William Schneider, a CNN political analyst and commentator, and a contributing editor to this magazine. The computer-assisted calculations rank members in each chamber along the ideological spectrum, based on how they voted on key economic, social, and foreign-policy issues selected by a panel of NJ reporters and editors.
Research Associate Peter Bell assisted in compiling the 2008 vote ratings. The authors can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
This article appeared in the Thursday, March 4, 2010 edition of National Journal.