Internal Democratic Fights Come to a Head This Week

At Hill meetings and a Philadelphia retreat, the House minority will debate term limits and an economic message.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-CA, speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill January 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. House Democrats spoke about US President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Jan. 26, 2015, 3 p.m.

In the first weeks of a new Con­gress, House Demo­crats are like an army in re­treat: They’re out­numbered, isol­ated, and di­vided over how — or if — to make a stand.

Even the weath­er is be­ing un­co­oper­at­ive: Later this week, as a bliz­zard en­vel­ops the North­east, they’ll head to Phil­adelphia for ral­ly­ing cries and tough dis­cus­sions about the fu­ture of their party. And be­fore that re­treat, mem­bers will have to ad­dress a grow­ing de­bate over wheth­er the party’s re­luct­ance to im­pose term lim­its on its com­mit­tee lead­ers is stifling op­por­tun­it­ies for the up-and-comers who will define the party’s fu­ture.

Pub­lic de­tails about the re­treat are so far sparse, though Pres­id­ent Obama is slated to ad­dress the caucus Thursday, fol­lowed by Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden the day after. While the gath­er­ing will no doubt fea­ture its share of rah-rah mo­ments, seni­or staffers for both mod­er­ate and pro­gress­ive co­ali­tions with­in the caucus agreed that its sub­stance will cen­ter on the search for a con­sensus eco­nom­ic mes­sage.

“There seems to be a de­bate hap­pen­ing about what kind of eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism House Demo­crats are go­ing to be push­ing this Con­gress,” said one aide to a prom­in­ent lib­er­al mem­ber. The staffer re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to dis­cuss in­tern­al de­bates, com­par­ing mem­bers who want to grow the gross do­mest­ic product and ease reg­u­la­tions with those who seek to raise the min­im­um wage and put curbs on Wall Street. “Those con­ver­sa­tions will hap­pen at the re­treat,” he ad­ded. “Com­ing out of the re­treat, people want there to be a tight defin­i­tion of the things we see as eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism.”

“There’s def­in­itely a siz­able fac­tion that is dis­sat­is­fied with the dir­ec­tion of the mes­saging,” said a mod­er­ate aide who also re­ques­ted an­onym­ity. “A num­ber of those mem­bers are plan­ning to at­tend to make those con­cerns known.”¦ There’s go­ing to be some pretty frank con­ver­sa­tions about the fu­ture dir­ec­tion of the party. It’s growth versus fair­ness.” The staffer said many mem­bers are frus­trated that party lead­er­ship did not take a les­son from the midterm elec­tions in which Demo­crats’ fair­ness-fo­cused mes­sage was drubbed at the polls.

Obama is ex­pec­ted to men­tion trade in his ad­dress, and many Demo­crats have op­posed his re­quest to speed up trade deals by by­passing con­gres­sion­al in­put — an is­sue that di­vides many busi­ness-friendly law­makers from the eco­nom­ic lib­er­als. Some are also con­cerned the White House may be will­ing to cut a deal on tax re­form with Re­pub­lic­ans without con­sult­ing Hill Demo­crats first.

The caucus will head to Phil­adelphia on Wed­nes­day, weath­er per­mit­ting, but Tues­day will likely ex­pose oth­er ten­sions as mem­bers meet to be­gin a dis­cus­sion over term lim­its, led by Rep. Kar­en Bass. Un­like Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats do not lim­it how many years their mem­bers may spend atop com­mit­tees. Young­er mem­bers say that’s cre­ated a lo­g­jam in which prom­ising le­gis­lat­ors find little op­por­tun­ity for ad­vance­ment.

A Bass aide em­phas­ized that the rules meet­ings are not solely a term-lim­its battle, al­though that seems to be the is­sue many mem­bers seem eager to ad­dress. Tues­day’s gath­er­ing will look at the his­tory and reas­ons be­hind caucus rules, fol­lowed by later meet­ings to dis­cuss in­di­vidu­al stat­utes. An­oth­er top­ic ex­pec­ted to come up is proxy vot­ing — an is­sue that ex­ploded in­to the spot­light last Novem­ber when Rep. Tammy Duck­worth, un­able to travel due to her late-stage preg­nancy, was denied a vote in chair­man­ship elec­tions.

The aide did not of­fer a timeline for how long the pro­cess will take, and the term-lim­it is­sue has been a di­vis­ive one.

“Term lim­its are a great idea,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Malo­ney. “We should do them in con­junc­tion with achiev­ing the oth­er goals we have, which are in­clu­sion and di­versity, and I think that’s pos­sible. I think it will en­cour­age new mem­bers to take on more re­spons­ib­il­ity, and I think that’s all pos­it­ive.”

Rep. Daniel Li­p­in­ski said he wasn’t ready to sup­port a spe­cif­ic pro­pos­al, but said “it would be good to have an op­por­tun­ity for new blood to come up and have that chance to take lead­er­ship roles.” Still, he wasn’t op­tim­ist­ic the caucus would em­brace any re­forms. “This is not something that Demo­crats have done be­fore; I don’t think we’re go­ing to make a change right now.”

For some, the lack of term lim­its is a di­versity is­sue. “We pride our­self as a caucus on be­ing the most di­verse, wheth­er that’s LGBT or wo­men or minor­it­ies,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy. “Well, what about the age piece? We are truly un­der­rep­res­en­ted on that front.” He went on to say that term lim­its are im­port­ant for re­tain­ing young tal­ent. “It’s just so far out of reach right now that people kind of throw up their hands,” he said. “I’ve spoken with some of my young­er col­leagues who want to know that there is at least an op­por­tun­ity in the near fu­ture to be­come that rank­ing mem­ber or chair.”

Mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, which has tra­di­tion­ally op­posed term lim­its, dis­missed such grumblings as selfish and im­pa­tient. “At a time when our num­bers are an­em­ic, I’m not able to un­der­stand why we would cre­ate con­tro­versy in­side the caucus,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleav­er. “I think it’s ter­rible that we’ve cre­ated this mi­crowave so­ci­ety where nobody wants to wait on any­thing. It’s like this kid who says, ‘I just turned 18, where’s my car?’ ” He joked that he spent his early days in Con­gress on the “baby row” of the Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, but that al­low­ing seni­or­ity to run its course had al­lowed him to rise with­in the ranks.

“An over­whelm­ing num­ber of CBC mem­bers would op­pose any change to im­ple­ment­ing term lim­its,” ad­ded Caucus Chair­man G.K. But­ter­field. “I don’t see a ne­ces­sity for it.”¦ I think we ought to take the same en­ergy and con­cen­trate on our mes­saging.”

Even Rep. Cedric Rich­mond, a third-ter­mer who might stand to gain from term lim­its, stood with his CBC col­leagues in op­pos­ing the change. “There’s some value to length of ser­vice,” he said. “I think seni­or­ity’s im­port­ant.” As for lack of op­por­tun­it­ies for young mem­bers? “I haven’t heard that, and I don’t have those frus­tra­tions.”

One al­tern­at­ive, pro­posed by Rep. Eric Swal­well, would be to cre­ate the po­s­i­tion of vice rank­ing mem­ber to open up more of­fi­cial roles for fu­ture lead­ers. “We’ve got a lot of tal­ent, and you want to use your tal­ent the best you can,” he said. However, most of his col­leagues were un­fa­mil­i­ar with the pro­pos­al, and some ex­pressed con­cerns that it could cre­ate an heir ap­par­ent with­in com­mit­tees.

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