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The Congressional Jigsaw: Determined Democratic Liberals The Congressional Jigsaw: Determined Democratic Liberals

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The Congressional Jigsaw: Determined Democratic Liberals

With a Democrat in the White House, optimism among liberal Democrats in Congress is widespread. Take that bankruptcy legislation that failed to garner more than 36 votes in the Senate last year. Obama has endorsed it, and liberals are confident they will prevail. "The world has changed," Schumer said. "You're going to find many more people supporting our bankruptcy provision."

Liberal Democrats see both the change at the White House and the nation's changing economic condition -- rising unemployment, the ongoing credit crunch, and an unabated housing crisis -- as factors favoring their progressive agenda. "These issues have built up to a point where the powerful financial services community is losing its power and its grip on Congress, and things are opening up," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. "The times are changing."


As time goes on, will liberals who had eagerly anticipated a Democratic takeover of the White House become balky if their wish list isn't fulfilled? Some House Democrats have already complained that the Obama administration gave in too much on the stimulus legislation and should have bullied Senate Republicans into supporting it. Waters and others are preaching patience, at least for now. "It's too early for this president to take on that kind of challenge," she said.

The results of the 2008 vote ratings show, however, that a small group of Democratic ideological purists in the House occasionally voted against Democratic leaders (and with Republicans) because they didn't think that their own leadership's bills were liberal enough. Subsequently, their liberal scores fell from prior years' vote ratings.


A prime example was the showdown between Bush and congressional Democrats over rewriting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Last February, all 195 House Republicans, plus a handful of moderate Democrats, voted against temporarily extending the previous FISA law. Their goal was to force House Democratic leaders to schedule an immediate vote on a conservative-backed Senate bill. But the linchpins in the surprising 191-229 House defeat of the extension were two dozen liberal Democrats, who argued that letting the law lapse would ultimately help them win more-liberal surveillance rules. Among the liberal renegades were Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, both D-Calif., who co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus last year, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil-rights icon.

Other votes last year demonstrated that House leaders were willing to lose a few true-blue liberals by drawing up compromise legislation that attracted enough support from moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans to assure victory. Winning coalitions were built without the support of renegade liberals on such issues as offshore oil and gas drilling, the auto bailout, torture rules, Central American aid, and missile defense.

After a steady drumbeat all summer long of Republican demands for increased domestic oil production, House Democratic leaders cobbled together an energy bill last September that allowed for limited expansion of offshore drilling. Thirteen Democrats voted against the legislation, including Woolsey and two fellow liberal stalwarts, Reps. Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Donald Payne, D-N.J., who oppose offshore drilling because of environmental concerns.


Along the same lines, 22 House Democrats in June rejected a bipartisan-crafted measure providing aid to Mexico and Central America to fight drug cartels. The liberal defectors, including veteran Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., objected because they believed that the compromise bill did not do enough to protect human rights. They joined 84 conservative Republicans in voting no, although the conservatives largely balked at sending taxpayer dollars south of the border. Because of such renegade votes, Stark, the 24th-most-liberal House member in 2006, fell to 133rd-most-liberal in 2008.

A similar dynamic sometimes played out in the Senate last year, with determined liberals voting against bipartisan, centrist legislation. But while House liberals were more willing to peel off as individuals to vote against a majority of their own party on matters of principle, Senate liberals voted more clearly as a bloc. The Senate's staunchest liberals are a formidable group boasting extensive experience, with all but one having served in Congress for a decade or longer.

In July, the Senate passed FISA legislation crafted by Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., with 69 votes -- every Republican and 21 mostly centrist Democrats. The 28 no votes composed the majority of the Senate Democratic Caucus, most of whom opposed the legislation on civil-liberties grounds.

Liberal senators took heat from FISA bill proponents for delaying passage by offering numerous amendments destined for defeat, but they said they were sticking by their principles. "I have to say, when you are standing up to fight for liberty and justice and the truth, you should never be afraid to slow something down," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on the floor on July 8. "As a matter of fact, it is our job to do so."

Many of the same liberals opposed funding for the Iraq war in May, when 70 of their Senate colleagues voted to keep money flowing to U.S. combat forces. Twenty-four Democrats, plus Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and one anti-war Republican, Smith, voted no because the measure did not include a deadline for troop withdrawals.

Looking ahead in 2009, many liberal Democrats want Congress to tackle immigration reform, even though many moderate Democrats oppose providing illegal aliens with a path to citizenship, which opponents deride as "amnesty." Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who was among the top-20 House liberals in the 2008 vote ratings, said he recognizes that House Democratic leaders are wary of pushing immigration legislation because of the danger posed to moderate Democrats' re-election.

Leadership's "motivation is to hold a majority of members," Honda said. "My opinion is that we teach our members who are hesitant or reticent, and try to understand more why they're resistant." He said a key to building a winning coalition on immigration will be to convince centrists that it's not a losing issue. "Some of them are taught to be resistant, because we tell them this is not going to be good for your district," Honda said. "Leadership is not only following what constituents want but also leading them. That's part of our job.... You stick to certain principles, and you teach."

This article appears in the February 28, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

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