The Congressional Jigsaw: Needy Democratic Moderates

National Journal
Feb. 27, 2009, 7 p.m.

2008 Vote Rat­ing­sCon­gres­sion­al Jig­saw”¢ In­tro­duc­tion
“¢ Po­lar­ized Re­pub­lic­ans
“¢ De­term­ined Demo­crat­ic Lib­er­als

“¢ How Vote Rat­ings Are Done
“¢ Key Vote De­scrip­tions

“¢ Sen­ate Rat­ings
“¢ House Rat­ings
“¢ Sen­ate Twins
“¢ Sen­ate Odd Couples
“¢ State Del­eg­a­tions In The House
“¢ House’s Ideo­lo­gic­al Caucuses

Pre­vi­ous Vote Rat­ings:
“¢ 2007 Vote Rat­ings
“¢ 2006 Vote Rat­ings
“¢ 2005 Vote Rat­ings
“¢ 2004 Vote Rat­ings

“¢ Back To Main Page

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.

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