In a normal political environment, the minority party in the House has the least clout in Congress. With no need for a supermajority to move contentious legislation or the ability to block bills from the majority, as occurs in the Senate, the lower chamber’s minority historically has had a more limited role in legislating.
But we are not in a normal political environment. These days, the minority is acting like the majority.
Obviously House Democrats can’t control the floor or bring up their bills. But during the past few major fiscal fights, a nearly united House Democratic Caucus has carried bills across the finish line, despite being outnumbered by Republicans. The last notable time this occurred was during the fiscal-cliff showdown, in which House Republican leadership was forced to put a bill up for a vote that received support from more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. Only 16 Democrats voted against it, compared with 151 Republicans.
While the Republican conference has been divided in these big battles, House Democrats have been remarkably unified—with some members gritting their teeth and casting votes for bills they don’t like. Many Democrats attribute that to a leadership that has a proven ability to deliver votes.
“What counts is not how many Democratic votes there are, what counts is how you get it to 218, and we will get it to 218,” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said hours before the vote on the Senate agreement to reopen the government and temporarily lift the debt ceiling.
The measure passed the House late Wednesday with 198 Democratic votes, despite a number of progressives strongly disapproving of the sequester-driven funding levels included in the deal.
“We hate them, but we hate the shutdown more,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“As much as we believe in what we believe in as progressives, we would never dream of shutting the government down over our priorities. That might disappoint some progressives, but the truth is it’s just wrong for the American people,” Ellison said. “I fervently want to see some real gun control, some real gun safety, but I would never try to wreck the country over it.”
Even Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut—one of just 16 Democrats who voted against the fiscal-cliff deal because the tax rates for wealthier Americans were still too low for her—said hours before the vote on the Senate agreement, “I’m going to wait to see what it has in it, but I want to keep the government open and I want to see the debt ceiling raised.”
“Our caucus has a sense of loyalty to each other and to our common purpose,” said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. “There is a bond of unity. Our individual differences and our geographical differences can be put aside with something this important.”
There was little grumbling among House Democrats leaving their caucus meeting Wednesday. Instead, there was a raucous applause. Not in response to “winning” a negotiation, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn. “[Rep.] Jim Clyburn told a wonderful story about unity, growing up in South Carolina.”
This article appears in the October 17, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as The House Minority Is the New House Majority.