It's unclear whether Rep. Parker Griffith's unusual decision to jump from the majority to minority party is an Alabama aberration or the start of a trend that could spell disaster for Democrats next year. As House and Senate negotiators brace for a potentially brutal post-Christmas conference on health care, Griffith's move will likely send a chill up the spines of embattled House Democrats in other red states who are increasingly wary of that vote's impact on their fate in 2010.
But one thing is clear: Neither Griffith nor any of the conservative House Democrats who recently said they're jumping ship in 2010 are likely to sink the health care bill when it boomerangs back into the House chamber next month. In fact, they just might ensure its survival.
Retirement can do funny things to politicians.
For his part, Griffith's departure will likely have little impact on the debate. While he voted with House Democratic leaders 84 percent of the time this year, the freshman congressman was one of seven Democrats who opposed President Obama's stimulus package and one of 39 who voted "no" on the health care bill in November. And, despite the Senate's attempt to make the measure more appealing to conservatives like Griffith, he was already certain to oppose whatever language came out of the conference committee next month. By switching parties, however, he has removed himself from the storyline Republicans are circulating of centrist Democrats who couldn't stomach "PelosiCare"; today, he's just another "no" vote in the Republican column.
Meanwhile, the recent retirement announcements of several Blue Dog Democrats could be a boon for health care reform.
Retirement can, of course, do funny things to politicians. Last week, for example, three Blue Dogs who recently said they'll step down in '10 (Reps. John Tanner and Bart Gordon of Tennessee, as well as Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas) surprised Democratic leaders by voting with them to do something that shakes a key pillar of their political philosophy: increase the federal debt ceiling. The fiscal conservatives' votes were intriguing, to say the least. Without them, the bill would likely have failed.
But their votes also raise a key question: Can the recent slew of House Democratic retirements be a (short-term) blessing in disguise for Speaker Nancy Pelosi?
The first big test of this question will be health care reform, which the House will revisit next month. Two of the three retiring Blue Dogs (Tanner and Gordon) opposed the Democratic bill when it came up for a vote last month -- as did Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who is also leaving the House next year. Will their retirements make it easier for Pelosi to corral their support for the conference bill?
Every single vote will count for Pelosi, especially since she's likely to lose some support from pro-life Democrats like Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak if Senate conferees strip his anti-abortion amendment from the final bill.
Of course, the smarter strategy for Pelosi, as she enters a self-described "campaign mode," would be to craft a legislative agenda for 2010 on jobs and deficit reduction that offers moderates something to vote for and help mobilize their base.
Doing so might help Democrats avoid more Parker Griffiths in the weeks and months ahead.