House Democrats Hope to Make Life Tougher for the GOP

Party liberals want to put up a stronger fight against the majority in the 114th Congress.

TUSCON, AZ - APRIL 24: U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) denounces Arizona's tough new immigration law on April 24, 2010 in Tuscon, Arizona. Grijalva, who shut his Tuscon office the day before because of death threats, called for an economic boycott of Arizona because of the new law, which he called racist. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jan. 7, 2015, 1:08 p.m.

The most mar­gin­al­ized caucus on Cap­it­ol Hill isn’t ready to con­cede its rel­ev­ance just yet.

House Demo­crats are en­ter­ing Year 5 of life in the minor­ity, and though their num­bers shrank yet again after the midterms, mem­bers say they’re will­ing to wield whatever lever­age they have left to in­flu­ence policy in the 114th Con­gress. But wheth­er they should ex­ert that in­flu­ence by fight­ing Re­pub­lic­ans—or cut­ting deals with them—re­mains an open ques­tion.

Time after time, Speak­er John Boehner has needed Demo­crat­ic votes to pass key le­gis­la­tion. Some Demo­crats say it’s time to make him earn those votes. If Re­pub­lic­an in­fight­ing sty­mies Boehner’s policy goals, said Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, Demo­crats should not give him “cov­er” without earn­ing con­ces­sions in re­turn. “If you’re go­ing to need 40-50-60 Demo­crats to get le­gis­la­tion passed that doesn’t cripple this gov­ern­ment, then that tem­plate’s set for com­prom­ise,” he said.

Rep. Keith El­lis­on, who co­chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus with Gri­jalva, poin­ted to Boehner’s nar­row reelec­tion as speak­er, which saw 25 Re­pub­lic­ans op­pose the in­cum­bent. “When the speak­er can only amass 216 votes, that’s kind of a sign that if he wants to pass new le­gis­la­tion, he’s go­ing to have to talk to some people who are here to ac­tu­ally le­gis­late on be­half of all of the Amer­ic­an people,” El­lis­on said. “That means if he comes our way, we ob­vi­ously have a per­spect­ive on all these things. I just hope that we don’t al­low threats and stuff like that to guide our de­cision-mak­ing.”

El­lis­on may have been re­fer­ring to the end-of-year drama that closed out the last Con­gress, and di­vided House Demo­crats in the pro­cess.

Boehner earned 57 Demo­crat­ic votes—over the ob­jec­tions of Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi—to pull out nar­row pas­sage of a bill to fund the gov­ern­ment. Pelosi and oth­ers took is­sue with pro­vi­sions in the bill that rolled back some Wall Street reg­u­la­tions, but the White House and House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er ar­gued that the ob­jec­tion­able amend­ments were not worth shut­ting down the gov­ern­ment.

Hoy­er took note of the GOP’s ideo­lo­gic­al di­vide dur­ing a weekly meet­ing with re­port­ers, say­ing, “We don’t have that in our party.” Yet the next time Boehner comes call­ing for Demo­crat­ic votes, mem­bers of the minor­ity will again have to de­cide wheth­er to stick to­geth­er or peel off to join the ma­jor­ity.

Even some mem­bers who voted with the GOP on the fund­ing bill say they’re not wor­ried about play­ing hard­ball. “The Re­pub­lic­ans played an im­plac­ably, re­lent­lessly ob­struc­tion­ist role since this pres­id­ent be­came pres­id­ent, in the minor­ity and in the ma­jor­ity,” said Rep. Ger­ald Con­nolly. “Were they re­war­ded or pun­ished for that? Demo­crats may be a little slow on the up­take in learn­ing cer­tain les­sons from re­cent polit­ic­al his­tory, but we’re not ob­li­vi­ous to the re­ward-and-pun­ish­ment sys­tem. If we take a les­son from our Re­pub­lic­an friends, im­plac­able op­pos­i­tion is re­war­ded.”

Of course, Demo­crats say they’re will­ing to work with Re­pub­lic­ans where they can, wheth­er on the High­way Trust Fund, a se­quester waiver for de­fense spend­ing, or trade is­sues. Rep. G.K. But­ter­field, who chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, said he takes Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers at their word that they want to reach across the aisle. “But if we need to ob­struct, we will,” he said.

Re­pub­lic­ans now con­trol both houses of Con­gress, but Boehner’s con­trol of his caucus is more tenu­ous than the firm grip of Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell. That real­ity, say some House Demo­crats, makes their role more im­port­ant than ever.

“Part of our role has to stop the worst from hap­pen­ing and us­ing whatever le­gis­lat­ive pro­ced­ures that are avail­able to us to do that,” Gri­jalva said. “We have to be sol­id to­geth­er, so on some of the worst [we are] able to sus­tain a pres­id­en­tial veto.” No longer can House Demo­crats rely on a Harry Re­id-led Sen­ate to stop GOP le­gis­la­tion.

While Demo­crat­ic mem­bers from con­ser­vat­ive dis­tricts have at times voted in their own polit­ic­al in­terests, Gri­jalva called on them to pri­or­it­ize party unity, ar­guing that voters prefer au­then­ti­city over “Con­ser­vat­ive Lite.”

“For Demo­crats to provide votes to pass items be­cause there is a sin­gu­lar par­tic­u­lar in­terest to that dis­trict or to that mem­ber doesn’t bode well for the whole,” he said. “Demo­crats have to be very leery of provid­ing cov­er by say­ing, ‘Oh, this is a bi­par­tis­an bill’ when you have maybe eight Demo­crats that are sup­port­ing it. I think we need to be uni­fied, and on the worst things to be solidly uni­fied.”

El­lis­on noted the losses of sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats in the 2014 elec­tions. “Demo­crats are for work­ing Amer­ic­ans, and we’ve got to stand on that if we want to be suc­cess­ful,” he said. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it ac­tu­ally can help you win reelec­tion.”

Not all Demo­crats are con­vinced they have lever­age to im­pose on Boehner. “I think that the speak­er’s prob­ably in a bet­ter place right now than he was,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, who rep­res­ents a Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing Flor­ida dis­trict. Murphy ref­er­enced Boehner’s reelec­tion as speak­er and his pun­ish­ment of some de­fect­ors as evid­ence that he’s so­lid­i­fied his hold atop the caucus.

Murphy de­scribed Boehner’s mind-set as: “‘I got my num­bers; I don’t need to cater to the tea party.’”

Still, Demo­crats agree they’ll be uni­fied on their core prin­ciples, wheth­er or not they’re will­ing to play ob­struc­tion­ist in oth­er areas. “Demo­crats are not go­ing to sup­port evis­cer­at­ing EPA,” Con­nolly said. “Demo­crats are not go­ing to re­peal health care. Demo­crats are not go­ing to aban­don seni­or cit­izens. “¦ If any­thing, there will prob­ably be more unity in our caucus be­cause it shrunk.”

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