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Legacy Content / POLITISCOPE

Liberals' Clout Borne Out In Vote Ratings

As Republicans' Conservative Wing Loses Its Voice In Congress, Liberal Democrats Are Enjoying Their Moment

March 18, 2009

To the list of troubles Republicans face these days, allow me to add one more: At the ideological extremes of Capitol Hill, liberals enjoy a huge edge over conservatives in terms of seniority, influence and raw power.

According to National Journal's new 2008 Vote Ratings, the 12 House Democrats with the most liberal voting records have a combined 150 years of seniority in the chamber. Their Republican colleagues who rank as the dozen most conservative have been in office for just 80 years total. Four of those Democrats (Reps. Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, George Miller of California and Nydia Velasquez and Louise Slaughter of New York) currently chair full House committees. Another top liberal, Hilda Solis of California, recently resigned her House seat to become Labor secretary in the Obama administration.

The ideological split between the two parties is even deeper today than it was during the 110th Congress.

 

None of the 12 most conservative lawmakers holds a senior post on a key House committee or in GOP leadership. The most conservative ranking member of a full House committee is Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who ranks 39th.

Conservatives do enjoy one small bragging right: Despite talk that the GOP is fast becoming a "regional party," the conservative dozen come from 10 different states spread out across the country, including five carried by President Obama last fall. The liberals come from just six states (only one of which, Arizona, went for John McCain in November); five of them are from California. Obama fared far better in the liberals' districts than McCain did in their conservative counterparts, according to the left-leaning blog Swing State Project. On average, Obama carried the liberals' districts by 41 points; McCain carried the conservatives' districts by just 20 points.

Liberals enjoy even greater influence in the Senate, where the five most liberal Democrats have served for a combined 94 years. Their conservative counterparts have a combined total service of just 39 years. Two of those Democrats, Barbara Boxer of California and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, chair full committees; a third Democrat, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chairs an important Armed Services subcommittee. Reed and Boxer also rank as the two sitting senators with the most consistently liberal voting record dating back to 1981, when National Journal started compiling the ratings.

Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois is the seventh most liberal senator, while Majority Leader Harry Reid ranks 25th. Vice President Joe Biden's votes in the 110th Congress made him the 10th most liberal. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ranked 15th, just slightly more moderate than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist. Except for Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate minority whip, none of the five most conservative senators hold top committee or leadership posts.

At the same time that their party's conservative wing lacks strong influence in the Senate, Republicans' moderate coalition has dwindled considerably. Of the 17 Senate Republicans nearest the center last year, eight have not returned to office. They are Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia, all of whom retired; Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Ted Stevens of Alaska and John Sununu of New Hampshire, all of whom lost their re-election bids; and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who is still contesting the November election results. All those leaving except Hagel were replaced by Democrats.

That leaves the ideological split between the two parties even deeper today than it was during the 110th Congress.

Republican analysts said the landscape is interesting, but not entirely surprising, considering how few conservatives aspire to serve decades in public office. "This is not something that conservatives do for life, generally," said veteran GOP pollster Glen Bolger. "Over the years, a lot of conservatives have left to do other things. They're not in public service quite as deeply as liberals; it's part of [liberals'] genetic DNA."

So, how does that affect public policy? "Well, is government getting smaller or bigger? It's getting bigger. And there's a correlation," Bolger said. "It's easier for liberals to not only win the battle, but over time, to win the war."

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