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At the other end of the Democratic Caucus from Honda is Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., whose composite scores are an even 50.0, putting him at the center of the House. His pro-gun, anti-abortion, hard-line immigration stances play well in his Republican-leaning district. "Amnesty? Folks in my district aren't going to go for that," Altmire said. "Any bill -- no matter how hard-line it is on immigration -- that includes that... is going to be real tough for me to support."
Last year, congressional Democratic leaders scheduled very few votes on controversial social issues that might split their party. One view is that the leaders avoided such hot-button subjects because they didn't want to force Democrats in GOP-leaning districts to make tough votes -- and potentially risk the party's majority in the process. Altmire has a different theory. "The reason, in my opinion, they didn't have those votes is because they wouldn't have won them," he said.
A case in point was a 2008 bill that Altmire co-sponsored, backed by the National Rifle Association, to overturn the District of Columbia's gun control laws. The House passed the bill 260-160, with 82 Democrats and 178 Republicans forming the winning coalition. Altmire believes that his position would prevail this year too, even with fewer Republicans in Congress. "I would expect guns and immigration still would favor the conservative side," he said.
Last year, House Democratic leaders could afford to lose only 18 of their rank-and-file members and still win votes without any Republican support. And the leaders did lose at times: Of the key votes used in the 2008 ratings, Republicans defeated a majority of Democrats by swaying Democratic centrists on such issues as business regulation, national security, gun control, and fiscal discipline. But after picking up 21 additional seats in November, House Democratic leaders have shown a willingness to press for more-liberal legislation, starting with the stimulus package.
Moderate Democrats worry that their leaders and the White House may push too far to the left this year. "As long as 39 of us are cohesive and hold firm, the Democratic leadership will have to work with us to mollify our concerns to ensure they have the votes to pass legislation," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., co-chair of the 49-member Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats. She was the 15th-most-conservative House Democrat in the 2008 ratings.
Herseth Sandlin said that moderate Democrats want to see legislation developed with their input from start to finish through the regular committee process, rather than just at the end after liberal leaders have negotiated bills behind closed doors. "Even if we're uncomfortable with certain elements in the final package, we will have had that opportunity to influence the legislation in a way that makes sense for our constituents and makes sense for our principles," she said.
In the Senate, the support of moderate Democrats is crucial to Obama and Democratic leaders because their party is two votes short of the 60-vote threshold needed to break filibusters. Those numbers give the chamber's moderate Democrats even more negotiating power than their House counterparts.
In the key votes used in the 2008 ratings, Senate Democratic centrists occasionally voted against their leaders, including these three outliers, who ranked as the first-, second-, and third-most-conservative Democrats, respectively, in their chamber.
• Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., whose concerns over fiscal discipline resulted in his being the only Democrat to vote against the majority's budget resolution -- usually a test of party loyalty.
• Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., who was among a handful of Democrats to oppose a measure in March expanding social safety net programs by raising taxes on millionaires. "I am a fiscal conservative," he said. "I am very concerned about spending."
• Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose increasingly Republican home state is an oil and gas producer, leading her to endorse conservative positions on energy legislation in particular.
Although fiscal discipline is a key sticking point for moderate Senate Democrats, their opposition could kill legislation on issues ranging from abortion rights to immigration reform. Nelson, for example, advocated less spending on school construction in this year's stimulus package because of conservative-style worries about local control of education. "I'm philosophically concerned about having the federal government having much more to do with K-12 education," he said.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, a second-term member whose vote ratings were liberal on social and foreign policy but moderate on economic issues, recently formed a Populist Caucus aimed at developing policy positions that Democrats of all stripes can agree on. "There isn't really a lot of disagreement on some of these core economic middle-class values," Braley said, pointing to such issues as middle-class tax cuts, affordable health care, and consumer protection.
But Braley acknowledged that ideological differences will pose a challenge as he and others seek to build winning coalitions in this Congress. "The great thing about Democrats is, sometimes we agree to disagree," he said.
This article appears in the Feb. 28, 2009, edition of National Journal.