2009 VOTE RATINGS

2009 Vote Ratings: Politics As Usual

National Journal‘s annual congressional vote ratings for 2009 show that long-standing ideological divides have persisted — and even deepened — in President Obama’s Washington.

Feb. 26, 2010, 7 p.m.

In­ter­act­ive Graph­ic­Polit­ics As Usu­al”¢ The 2009 Vote Rat­ings

Just over a year ago, Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress gathered on the Cap­it­ol’s West Front to hear Pres­id­ent Obama’s In­aug­ur­al Ad­dress. Like many of his pre­de­cessors, Obama called on Con­gress to change the way it does busi­ness. “The time has come to set aside child­ish things,” he said, quot­ing scrip­ture. “On this day, we come to pro­claim an end to the petty griev­ances and false prom­ises, the re­crim­in­a­tions and worn-out dog­mas that for far too long have strangled our polit­ics.”

But Con­gress didn’t change for pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents. And it hasn’t changed for this one.

Lib­er­als, mod­er­ates, and con­ser­vat­ives stuck to their guns in 2009, wheth­er for ideo­lo­gic­al, par­tis­an, pa­ro­chi­al, or elect­or­al reas­ons, sty­mie­ing much of Obama’s agenda. Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s an­nu­al vote rat­ings, which have ranked mem­bers of Con­gress on a con­ser­vat­ive-to-lib­er­al scale since 1981, found telling con­sist­ency in the long-stand­ing ideo­lo­gic­al di­vides that define le­gis­lat­ive battles on Cap­it­ol Hill. Some of those gulfs even deepened as the dec­ades-long par­tis­an sort­ing of lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives in­to op­pos­ing camps con­tin­ued apace last year.

“The hy­per­par­tis­an­ship has been get­ting more hy­per with every passing year that I’ve been here,” said Sen. Joe Lieber­man, ID-Conn., who ranked at the em­battled cen­ter of the Sen­ate in NJ‘s 2009 rat­ings. “Look, over Amer­ic­an his­tory, we’ve al­ways had spir­ited polit­ics, par­tic­u­larly in elec­tion years. But for most of our his­tory, that par­tis­an polit­ic­al stuff usu­ally ends for a while after elec­tions. Nowadays, the cam­paigns nev­er seem to end. That makes it very hard to get any­thing done.”

To com­pile the 29th an­nu­al vote rat­ings, Na­tion­al Journ­al used a stat­ist­ic­al ana­lys­is de­signed by Bill Schneider, a polit­ic­al ana­lyst and com­ment­at­or, and a con­trib­ut­ing ed­it­or to this magazine. The com­puter-as­sisted cal­cu­la­tions rank mem­bers in each cham­ber along the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum, based on how they voted on key eco­nom­ic, so­cial, and for­eign-policy is­sues se­lec­ted by a pan­el of NJ re­port­ers and ed­it­ors. For 2009, NJ iden­ti­fied 99 key votes in the Sen­ate and 92 key votes in the House.

By design, the rat­ings high­light ideo­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ences between law­makers. The past year in Con­gress was defined by lib­er­al-con­ser­vat­ive battles over eco­nom­ic is­sues, with health care re­form dom­in­at­ing the de­bate and demon­strat­ing the philo­soph­ic­al chasm between the two parties on the role of gov­ern­ment in the na­tion’s com­merce. “Health care re­form was both a field on which all this par­tis­an­ship that has now be­come in­grained played it­self out, but it also made it worse,” Lieber­man noted.

Bey­ond the health care is­sue, the sharp di­vi­sions between lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives in Con­gress could be seen in Obama’s suc­cesses — in­clud­ing the $862 bil­lion eco­nom­ic stim­u­lus pack­age, the con­firm­a­tion of a Su­preme Court justice, new pay-dis­crim­in­a­tion rules, and a hate crimes law. These dif­fer­ences also helped to stall or sink Obama’s le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­it­ies on fin­an­cial reg­u­lat­ory re­form, high­er edu­ca­tion, and cli­mate change.

“The hy­per­par­tis­an­ship has been get­ting more hy­per with every passing year.”
— Joe Lieber­man

Iron­ic­ally, even as law­makers played mostly to their typ­ic­al polit­ic­al form in 2009, many voiced grow­ing frus­tra­tion with the grid­lock that fre­quently res­ul­ted. “We can’t ef­fect­ively ad­dress any of those is­sues un­less we change the way we do it,” fresh­man Rep. Walt Min­nick, D-Idaho, said after Obama ex­hor­ted Con­gress to act in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress. Min­nick is vul­ner­able in Novem­ber’s elec­tion in a dis­trict where GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee John Mc­Cain won 62 per­cent of the vote in 2008.

“We have to bring both parties to­geth­er at the be­gin­ning of craft­ing a solu­tion to prob­lems, pick up the best think­ing of Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, and make that the core of the way we ap­proach these is­sues,” Min­nick ad­ded. “That’s the prin­cip­al fail­ure of how this Con­gress has op­er­ated so far, and it’s what we must fun­da­ment­ally change if we’re go­ing to make pro­gress.”

For many oth­er Demo­crats who, like Min­nick, were elec­ted in 2006 and 2008 from Re­pub­lic­an or swing areas, polit­ic­al sur­viv­al dic­tates that they worry first about how their votes will play back home, rather than about how they will help ad­vance the broad­er party agenda. Rep. Jason Alt­mire, D-Pa., a sopho­more whose dis­trict Mc­Cain also car­ried, said in an in­ter­view that he be­lieves that House Demo­crats’ votes on two pivotal bills last year — health care re­form and cli­mate change — will have a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on how they fare in Novem­ber.

In fact, Alt­mire made a com­par­is­on to the 1994 elec­tion, which he said also turned on two im­port­ant votes: the Au­gust 1993 ap­prov­al of Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s budget, in­clud­ing a con­tro­ver­sial tax hike; and the May 1994 pas­sage of the as­sault weapons ban. That elec­tion proved dev­ast­at­ing for con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats, and Alt­mire had an in­side view as a House staffer.

Of 21 cent­rist House Demo­crats who voted for both the Clin­ton budget and the as­sault weapons ban, 15 lost re-elec­tion in 1994 and three re­tired; only three won an­oth­er term. A sep­ar­ate group of 20 cent­rist House Demo­crats who voted against both of those bills did far bet­ter: 17 won re-elec­tion and two re­tired; only one was de­feated. An­oth­er three dozen cent­rist House Demo­crats who voted for only one of those two bills split about evenly in their elec­tion out­comes.

Alt­mire be­lieves that his votes last year against both the health care and the cap-and-trade cli­mate le­gis­la­tion provide some polit­ic­al in­su­la­tion from GOP cam­paign at­tacks. “Re­pub­lic­ans will try to make the case ty­ing me to an un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent,” he said in an in­ter­view. “But in­tu­it­ively, that’s a hard case to make.”

Sen­ate Demo­crats: In­ev­it­able In­fight­ing

In the sum­mer be­fore the Demo­crats’ 2008 elec­tion sweep, Sen. Rus­sell Fein­gold, D-Wis., offered Na­tion­al Journ­al a pres­ci­ent warn­ing about the dangers of one-party con­trol of the White House and Con­gress. “The in­fight­ing is al­most in­ev­it­able when you have everything,” he said. “You have petty jeal­ousies and power games that go on with­in the rul­ing party that lead to some pretty bad con­sequences.”

NJ‘s vote rat­ings show how dif­fi­cult it would have been for Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­ers to avoid the feud­ing with­in their caucus in 2009. Demo­crats held 58 seats in Janu­ary and 60 seats by sum­mer, after Sen. Ar­len Specter of Pennsylvania bolted the GOP on April 30 and Sen. Al Franken of Min­nesota was sworn in on Ju­ly 7. That huge ma­jor­ity — the largest that either party en­joyed in the Sen­ate since 1978 — spanned a vast ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum of Demo­crats, from such die-hard lib­er­als as Sen. Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land and four oth­ers who had per­fect lib­er­al scores in the vote rat­ings, to con­ser­vat­ive Sens. Ben Nel­son of Neb­raska and Evan Bayh of In­di­ana, both of whom had scores to the right of the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine. With Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans largely united in op­pos­i­tion, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers had to un­der­take frac­tious ne­go­ti­ations all year long to try to bring to­geth­er White­house, Bayh, and all their party’s mem­bers in between, thus slow­ing pro­gress on ma­jor le­gis­la­tion.

Des­pite their ideo­lo­gic­al breadth, Sen­ate Demo­crats were, to an un­pre­ced­en­ted ex­tent, united on for­eign policy, which ac­coun­ted for only a few key votes last year. Three-quar­ters of the caucus had per­fect lib­er­al for­eign-policy scores. Mem­bers were more di­vided on so­cial-policy is­sues, most of which came be­fore the Sen­ate in the form of GOP-sponsored amend­ments to un­re­lated bills that were in­ten­ded to drive a polit­ic­al wedge.

For ex­ample, gun-rights ad­voc­ates racked up con­sid­er­able vic­tor­ies last year, win­ning votes to al­low guns in the Dis­trict of Columbia, guns in na­tion­al parks, and guns on Amtrak trains. In the pro­cess, the vote rat­ings of sev­er­al tra­di­tion­ally strong lib­er­als who have pro-gun views, such as Fein­gold and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., moved to­ward the cen­ter. Last Feb­ru­ary, Fein­gold was among the 22 Demo­crats who voted for an amend­ment re­peal­ing the Dis­trict of Columbia’s gun con­trol laws, a pois­on pill that scuttled the un­der­ly­ing bill that would have giv­en D.C. a vot­ing House mem­ber.

It was eco­nom­ic policy, however, that dom­in­ated the 2009 agenda and formed the main ideo­lo­gic­al battle­ground with­in Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic ranks. Is­sues re­lated to fed­er­al spend­ing, the prop­er size and role of gov­ern­ment, and busi­ness reg­u­la­tion di­vided the caucus.

Take the cli­mate-change is­sue, one of Obama’s top le­gis­lat­ive pri­or­it­ies in 2009, along with health care re­form and the stim­u­lus bill. Dur­ing the budget de­bate last spring, Re­pub­lic­ans offered an amend­ment to bar the use of fast-track re­con­cili­ation pro­ced­ures to pass cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion. The amend­ment cleaved the Demo­crat­ic caucus in two; 31 Demo­crats voted against it and 26 joined Re­pub­lic­ans and voted for it. Al­though many sen­at­ors sug­ges­ted at the time that re­gion­al dif­fer­ences were at play, the vote tracked the split between the mod­er­ate and lib­er­al wings of the Demo­crat­ic caucus in NJ‘s rat­ings: 21 of the 25 most mod­er­ate Demo­crats voted against fast-track cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion, and 22 of the 25 most lib­er­al Demo­crats voted for it.

Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, a lib­er­al who voted for the fast-track op­tion on cli­mate change, said that the Sen­ate must al­ter its rules to al­low the ma­jor­ity party to get things done. Obama “is right to be point­ing out that Con­gress has ba­sic­ally be­come dys­func­tion­al,” Har­kin said. “It’s now be­come tit for tat. It’s al­most like the Serbs and the Bos­ni­ans. They go back to the 11th cen­tury about who star­ted what first. With every change of party power here, it ratchets up more and more and more. We’ve got to stop be­fore it con­sumes the en­tire Con­gress.”

“We can’t ef­fect­ively ad­dress any of those is­sues un­less we change the way we do it.”
— Walt Min­nick

Sanders also voted for the fast-track pro­ced­ures. But he gave Demo­crat­ic lead­ers head­aches by vot­ing with con­ser­vat­ives against the con­firm­a­tion of Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Timothy Geithner, against in­creased sup­port for the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, and against the re­lease of bank bail­out funds to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Sanders’s reneg­ade pop­u­list eco­nom­ic votes, coupled with his pro-gun votes, pushed him to a sur­pris­ing 38th place among lib­er­al sen­at­ors, des­pite his self-pro­claimed so­cial­ist pref­er­ences.

The lib­er­al half of the Demo­crat­ic caucus is dom­in­ated by sen­at­ors from states that voted Demo­crat­ic in most re­cent pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, in­clud­ing both sen­at­ors from each of the solidly blue states of Cali­for­nia, Hawaii, Illinois, Mary­land, Michigan, New Jer­sey, New York, Ore­gon, and Rhode Is­land.

Among them was Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand of New York, who tied with three oth­er sen­at­ors in 2009 as the 11th-most-lib­er­al. She had per­fect lib­er­al scores in the eco­nom­ic and for­eign-policy cat­egor­ies, and voted against the lib­er­al bloc on only one key so­cial-policy vote — a meas­ure re­af­firm­ing com­munity ser­vice re­quire­ments for pub­lic hous­ing re­cip­i­ents. Gil­librand pre­vi­ously rep­res­en­ted a GOP-lean­ing up­state dis­trict in the House, and her vote rat­ings in 2007 and 2008 were more mod­er­ate. After her ap­point­ment to the Sen­ate in 2009 to suc­ceed Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton, Gil­librand shif­ted dra­mat­ic­ally to the left, re­flect­ing the more lib­er­al polit­ics of New York state as a whole and her need to fend off lib­er­al primary chal­lengers in a spe­cial elec­tion this year.

The past two elec­tions wiped out much of the mod­er­ate wing of the Sen­ate GOP caucus and re­placed it with a mix of Demo­crats. Five of the 13 Demo­crats who suc­ceeded Re­pub­lic­ans in 2006 and 2008 landed in the lib­er­al half of the caucus in the vote rat­ings. White­house and Sen. Sher­rod Brown, D-Ohio, who both suc­ceeded mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans in 2006, re­ceived per­fect lib­er­al scores in 2009.

The eight oth­er Demo­crats who won Re­pub­lic­an seats in the past two cycles have settled in the more con­ser­vat­ive half of the caucus. The class of 2008 mod­er­ates, in­clud­ing Sens. Mark Warner of Vir­gin­ia, Mark Be­gich of Alaska, and Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado, ten­ded to stick with their lib­er­al col­leagues a bit more than the class of 2006 mod­er­ates did. Sen. Robert Ca­sey, a 2006 win­ner in Pennsylvania, voted with lib­er­als con­sist­ently on eco­nom­ic is­sues, but his anti-abor­tion and pro-gun views pushed his so­cial-is­sues score to the right of most in the caucus. Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri reg­u­larly dis­sen­ted on fisc­al mat­ters, while mav­er­ick Sen. Jim Webb of Vir­gin­ia had the most con­ser­vat­ive rat­ing among Demo­crats who re­placed Re­pub­lic­ans in the past two cycles.

Webb was the fifth-most-con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat over­all in 2009, be­hind Fein­gold, who sided with con­ser­vat­ives on many fisc­al mat­ters; party-switch­er Specter; and red-staters Nel­son and Bayh. Specter voted with lib­er­als 90 per­cent of the time on NJ‘s key votes after his party switch at the end of April, but be­fore that, he split his votes evenly between the left and the right. Nel­son and Bayh were the two most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats in the 2008 rat­ings as well. When Bayh an­nounced his re­tire­ment from the Sen­ate on Feb­ru­ary 15, he cited the in­ab­il­ity of cent­rists to pre­vail in Con­gress.

Giv­en the wide range of Sen­ate Demo­crats, it’s a won­der that Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id, D-Nev., man­aged on Christ­mas Eve to get all 60 of them to vote for the health care re­form bill, the sig­na­ture achieve­ment of the caucus’s su­per­ma­jor­ity, which came to an end when Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., was elec­ted in Janu­ary to suc­ceed the late Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy, D-Mass. But it took Re­id most of 2009 to get all 60 on board for that fleet­ing vic­tory. By the be­gin­ning of 2010, many mod­er­ate Demo­crats felt that their party had gone too far to the left and had tried to do too much last year. “I have been one of the Demo­crats that have said some in our party over­reach,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans: Sol­id Minor­ity

As 2009 began, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans were a bruised and battered bunch, down from 55 mem­bers at the end of 2006 to just 41 mem­bers. Obama, who had run on the prom­ise of bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion, hoped to di­vide their ranks by peel­ing off Re­pub­lic­ans on is­sue after is­sue. At least early on, that strategy was some­what ef­fect­ive.

In Janu­ary of last year, Demo­crats won the sup­port of five Re­pub­lic­ans — in­clud­ing all four wo­men GOP sen­at­ors — to sup­port a change in pay-dis­crim­in­a­tion rules. Ten Re­pub­lic­ans came to Obama’s aid to con­firm Geithner, off­set­ting lib­er­al dis­sent­ers. And nine Re­pub­lic­ans — in­clud­ing Sens. Lamar Al­ex­an­der and Bob Cork­er of Ten­ness­ee and Richard Lugar of In­di­ana — voted with lib­er­als to ex­pand the State Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram.

The GOP split was even more pro­nounced on the Feb­ru­ary 2 vote to con­firm At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er. Twenty-one of the 30 most-con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­ors in the vote rat­ings — in­clud­ing Jim De­Mint of South Car­o­lina and Mike Crapo of Idaho — voted against Hold­er. Nine­teen Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing the eight most-mod­er­ate GOP­ers such as Lugar, Snowe, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, voted for Hold­er.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Whip Jon Kyl of Ari­zona, who voted to con­firm Hold­er, con­ten­ded that such bi­par­tis­an­ship is nor­mal in the cham­ber, es­pe­cially on lower-pro­file is­sues. “There’s al­ways bi­par­tis­an­ship in the Sen­ate,” he said. “It is simply in­cor­rect to be­lieve that everything is par­tis­an.”

Non­ethe­less, bi­par­tis­an­ship went down­hill from there last year. After that early sup­port, Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans mostly uni­fied against Obama’s top le­gis­lat­ive goals, start­ing with the stim­u­lus pack­age, which smacked against their con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciple of lim­ited gov­ern­ment. As the stim­u­lus ne­go­ti­ations went on, mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans backed away from the pres­id­ent, ul­ti­mately leav­ing only Snowe, Collins, and Specter (still wear­ing his GOP hat) to vote for the gi­ant pack­age of spend­ing and tax cuts in Feb­ru­ary.

“It’s al­most like the Serbs and the Bos­ni­ans. They go back to the 11th cen­tury about who star­ted what first.”
— Tom Har­kin

Over the rest of the year, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, R-Ky., had much less dif­fi­culty keep­ing his ranks uni­fied than did Re­id — in large part be­cause Mc­Con­nell had a much nar­row­er ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum to bring to­geth­er. The de­pleted GOP ranks ranged from James In­hofe of Ok­lahoma — the only sen­at­or with a per­fect con­ser­vat­ive score in 2009 — to Snowe, the most mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an. For much of the year, Snowe was the only mem­ber of her caucus will­ing to con­sider sup­port­ing Obama’s health care re­form le­gis­la­tion, mak­ing Mc­Con­nell’s job all the easi­er.

The next-most-mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an in the vote rat­ings, Lugar, made it clear early in the year that he thought Con­gress should fo­cus on jobs and the eco­nomy, not health care. Lugar had been a ment­or to Obama in the Sen­ate, and his mod­er­ate scores in 2009 largely res­ul­ted from his sup­port of the pres­id­ent’s nom­in­ees, in­clud­ing Su­preme Court Justice So­nia So­to­may­or and sev­er­al con­tro­ver­sial Justice De­part­ment ap­pointees whom con­ser­vat­ives tried to block.

A Lugar spokes­man said that the sen­at­or tends to back the ap­pointees of both parties’ pres­id­ents. Lugar also voted against the con­ser­vat­ive wing of his party on most for­eign-policy is­sues, be­cause of his will­ing­ness to work with Demo­crats as the rank­ing mem­ber on the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. In­ter­est­ingly, Lugar tied with his Demo­crat­ic home-state col­league, the re­tir­ing Bayh, in the 2009 rat­ings.

The nar­row­ing of the Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an caucus’s ideo­logy shows up in the change in the vote rat­ings from 2008 to 2009. In 2008, Lugar was the 12th-most-mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an and the 37th-most-con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an. His rank­ing shif­ted only two places — to 39th-most-con­ser­vat­ive in 2009. But sev­en of the 11 GOP­ers who were more mod­er­ate than he dropped out of the rank­ings — four were de­feated for re-elec­tion, two re­tired, and Specter switched parties. The Re­pub­lic­ans who were more mod­er­ate than he was in 2008 were re­placed by Demo­crats in 2009.

One sym­bol of Sen­ate GOP unity last year is Mc­Cain’s vote rat­ing. Al­though Mc­Cain was ini­tially among the more-con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­ors after his elec­tion in 1986, his an­nu­al rat­ings shif­ted to the cen­ter from 1994 on as he de­veloped his mav­er­ick vot­ing pat­tern, cul­min­at­ing in his most lib­er­al rat­ing in 2004, when he tied with Specter as the third-most-mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an. In 2009, however, Mc­Cain re­turned to his con­ser­vat­ive roots. His com­pos­ite score of 84.3 made him the 21st-most-con­ser­vat­ive sen­at­or. He split with con­ser­vat­ives on only sev­en of the 99 key votes, four of which were con­firm­a­tions. Mc­Cain’s closest neigh­bors in the 2009 rat­ings were Sens. Sam Brown­back, R-Kan., and Saxby Cham­b­liss, R-Ga. Mc­Cain faces a primary chal­lenge from con­ser­vat­ive former Rep. J.D. Hay­worth.

Mc­Cain ar­gues that Demo­crats could have scored more bi­par­tis­an vic­tor­ies if they had tried harder to seek Re­pub­lic­an in­put on le­gis­la­tion. “Their strategy has been to pick off one or two Re­pub­lic­ans and call it bi­par­tis­an,” Mc­Cain said. “That’s bogus, and every­body knows it.”

House Demo­crats: Wiggle Room

In con­trast to the grid­lock that of­ten be­sieged Sen­ate Demo­crats, their House coun­ter­parts were re­l­at­ively pro­duct­ive and ef­fi­cient in get­ting their work done in 2009. To be sure, House Re­pub­lic­ans rarely offered sup­port on the highest-pro­file and most-con­ten­tious le­gis­la­tion, and House Demo­crats didn’t sug­gest even the pre­tense of bi­par­tis­an­ship on most is­sues.

But with the Demo­crats’ ma­jor­ity reach­ing a high-wa­ter mark of 258 seats last year, they had the re­l­at­ive lux­ury to pre­vail even if as many as 40 of their mem­bers aban­doned ship. Con­sequently, on many le­gis­lat­ive show­downs on top party pri­or­it­ies, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers fo­cused on win­ning just enough sup­port in their mod­er­ate flank to suc­ceed while al­low­ing oth­er skit­tish cent­rists to take a pass and vote no, as Alt­mire did on the health care re­form and cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion.

As a group, the 35 House Demo­crats with the most-con­ser­vat­ive com­pos­ite scores in the 2009 vote rat­ings met sev­er­al com­mon cri­ter­ia. They were primar­ily ju­ni­or (13 are serving their first full term and eight are sopho­mores) and primar­ily South­ern (16 hail from Dixie). This group in­cludes Rep. Park­er Grif­fith of Alabama, who voted all year as a Demo­crat but an­nounced on Decem­ber 22 that he was switch­ing to the GOP. In ad­di­tion, 30 of the 35 are mem­bers of the Blue Dog Co­ali­tion, whose mem­bers style them­selves as “in­de­pend­ent voices for fisc­al re­spons­ib­il­ity and ac­count­ab­il­ity.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, these mem­bers were a per­sist­ent source of op­pos­i­tion to Obama’s prime agenda items. Of the 23 Demo­crats who voted against both the cap-and-trade bill in June and health care re­form in Novem­ber, 19 were to the right of the House’s cen­ter in the vote rat­ings; the oth­ers were Rep. Chet Ed­wards of Texas, lib­er­al mav­er­ick Rep. Den­nis Ku­cinich of Ohio, and first-term Reps. Larry Kissell of North Car­o­lina and Eric Massa of New York. Of these 23 dis­sid­ents, 17 are from the South and 18 rep­res­ent dis­tricts that Mc­Cain won in 2008.

“I rep­res­ent my dis­trict, and the dis­trict clearly didn’t sup­port health re­form or cap-and-trade,” said Alt­mire, whose sub­urb­an Pitt­s­burgh con­stitu­ents gave Mc­Cain 55 per­cent of their votes. “It’s a hard case for my op­pon­ent to ar­tic­u­late that I am a lap­dog for [Speak­er] Nancy Pelosi…. Your vot­ing re­cord does mat­ter.”

But Scott Lilly, a seni­or fel­low at the lib­er­al-lean­ing Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, cau­tioned that cent­rist Demo­crats might non­ethe­less face prob­lems in Novem­ber. “Mem­bers who con­stantly voted no may be cri­ti­cized as part of the prob­lem, not the solu­tion,” Lilly said. “And the big prob­lem that Demo­crats may face in the elec­tion is get­ting Demo­crat­ic voters and lib­er­al-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents to turn out to vote.”

The vote rat­ings re­veal an in­ter­est­ing dis­par­ity between the large fresh­man and sopho­more Demo­crat­ic classes, which have built the party’s cur­rent ma­jor­ity. Of the 28 mem­bers who re­placed Re­pub­lic­ans and are serving their first full term, the av­er­age com­pos­ite lib­er­al score was 53.6. By con­trast, the 26 sopho­more Demo­crats who took GOP-held seats had an av­er­age com­pos­ite lib­er­al score of 60. In part, that res­ult mir­rors the great­er num­ber of second-term Demo­crats who have be­come polit­ic­ally se­cure at home.

Demo­crats’ “strategy has been to pick off one or two Re­pub­lic­ans and call it bi­par­tis­an. That’s bogus.”
— John Mc­Cain

The fresh­man Demo­crats dis­pro­por­tion­ately filled the vote-rat­ings slots at the ideo­lo­gic­al cen­ter of the House in 2009. Of the 16 House mem­bers — all Demo­crats — with the most-cent­rist scores last year, 10 were first-ter­mers. That res­ult is com­par­able to the 2007 vote rat­ings, when six of the eight mem­bers at the cen­ter of the House were in that year’s fresh­man class.

In 2008, Alt­mire, then a fresh­man, was at the pre­cise cen­ter of the House. But with the in­flux of ad­di­tion­al Demo­crats, he moved nearly 20 slots to the right in the 2009 vote rat­ings.

Two mem­bers, both New York Demo­crats, are tied at the dead cen­ter of the House this year: sopho­more Rep. Mi­chael Ar­curi and fresh­man Rep. Mi­chael McMa­hon. Told about the res­ult, McMa­hon said he was “pleas­antly sur­prised.” He said he hopes that his votes re­flect his dis­trict centered on Staten Is­land, where George W. Bush got 55 per­cent of the vote in 2004 and Mc­Cain won with 51 per­cent in 2008.

“It is not hard for me to fig­ure out the right vote. But I some­times have to ex­plain it to my col­leagues,” said McMa­hon, who voted for last year’s cli­mate-change cap-and-trade bill but against health care re­form. “Some Demo­crats tell me that I should vote for the great­er good of the party. I tell them that I vote for my dis­trict and its in­terests.”

With 80,000 of his con­stitu­ents work­ing on Wall Street or else­where in the fin­an­cial in­dustry, McMa­hon has been es­pe­cially vi­gil­ant to rep­res­ent those in­terests. On March 19, he was one of only six Demo­crats to vote against a bill to im­pose a 90 per­cent tax on some Wall Street bo­nuses. “Tip O’Neill’s old ad­age that all polit­ics is loc­al is con­firmed to me every day,” McMa­hon said. “Some­times I feel that I am the only one in the New York del­eg­a­tion who stands up for the fin­an­cial in­dustry, in mak­ing the case for reas­on­able le­gis­la­tion.”

In at­tempt­ing to keep these swing-dis­trict mem­bers safe, House Demo­crat­ic lead­ers try not to press them too hard to act counter to loc­al in­terests while still cor­ralling suf­fi­cient votes to pass le­gis­la­tion. “If mem­bers feel that something will put them in jeop­ardy with their con­stitu­ents, it’s not my job to sub­sti­tute for their judg­ment,” said Rep. Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land, who works closely with fresh­man Demo­crats as as­sist­ant to Pelosi.

As 2009 pro­gressed, however, the num­ber of House Demo­crat­ic de­fec­tions on key votes in­creased. Early in 2009, only sev­en Demo­crats voted against the stim­u­lus bill and 20 voted against the budget res­ol­u­tion. By Decem­ber, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers struggled to se­cure pas­sage of the debt ceil­ing and jobs bills, which 39 and 38 Demo­crats op­posed, re­spect­ively.

At the oth­er end of the House Demo­crat­ic spec­trum, the 40 most-lib­er­al mem­bers in the 2009 rat­ings had high rep­res­ent­a­tion from the Cali­for­nia del­eg­a­tion (nine mem­bers were in this group), the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus (13 mem­bers), and the His­pan­ic Caucus (six mem­bers). Also among the most-lib­er­al mem­bers were five House com­mit­tee chair­men: Reps. Howard Ber­man of Cali­for­nia, For­eign Af­fairs; Robert Brady of Pennsylvania, House Ad­min­is­tra­tion; Barney Frank of Mas­sachu­setts, Fin­an­cial Ser­vices; Louise Slaughter of New York, Rules; and Henry Wax­man of Cali­for­nia, En­ergy and Com­merce.

House Re­pub­lic­ans: Lock­step Op­pos­i­tion

House Re­pub­lic­ans lost 55 seats over the past two elec­tions, which es­sen­tially decim­ated their mod­er­ate wing of mostly North­east­ern and Mid­west­ern mem­bers. In 2006, 14 Re­pub­lic­ans who had com­pos­ite con­ser­vat­ive scores be­low 60 in that year’s vote rat­ings left the House — either in de­feat or by choice; eight more with com­par­able scores ex­ited in 2008.

In the 2009 rat­ings, only a hand­ful of House Re­pub­lic­ans had rat­ings to the left of the most-con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats. The most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an was Rep. Mi­chael Castle of Delaware, who is run­ning this year for an open Sen­ate seat; he was fol­lowed by Reps. John McHugh of New York, who resigned in Septem­ber to be­come Obama’s Army sec­ret­ary, and Dave Reich­ert of Wash­ing­ton.

Eight oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans are just to the left of Rep. Bobby Bright of Alabama, the House’s most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat. Sev­en rep­res­ent states in the arc from Illinois to New Jer­sey, and the eighth is Rep. Joseph Cao of Louisi­ana, who won what many ob­serv­ers con­tend was a fluke vic­tory in 2008 over then-in­dicted Demo­crat­ic Rep. Wil­li­am Jef­fer­son.

The starkly con­ser­vat­ive House GOP Con­fer­ence that re­mained after the loss of their mod­er­ates voted in lock­step op­pos­i­tion against much of the White House’s agenda last year. House Re­pub­lic­ans sent a strong mes­sage in the early days of Obama’s pres­id­ency in Janu­ary, when they united in vot­ing against the stim­u­lus bill.

A few dis­plays of bi­par­tis­an­ship cropped up, such as wide GOP sup­port for fund­ing the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, and the vote by eight Re­pub­lic­ans — six from the North­east and the Mid­w­est, plus Reich­ert and Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Cali­for­nia — for the cap-and-trade bill. Over­all, though, Re­pub­lic­ans con­ten­ded that House rules and the Demo­crats’ large ma­jor­ity, plus Pelosi’s of­ten iron­fis­ted con­trol of de­bate, left them little op­por­tun­ity to in­flu­ence what they con­tend has of­ten been bad le­gis­la­tion.

“It’s a hard case for my op­pon­ent to ar­tic­u­late that I am a lap­dog for Nancy Pelosi.”
—Jason Alt­mire

“It took tre­mend­ous cour­age to vote against the stim­u­lus bill when our mem­bers did,” said Mike Steel, the spokes­man for House Minor­ity Lead­er John Boehner of Ohio. “The pres­id­ent was at the height of his pop­ular­ity. It turned out to be the right vote, though it wasn’t easy at the time.” Steel cited a CBS News/New York Times poll this month show­ing that only 6 per­cent of the people be­lieve that the stim­u­lus bill has already cre­ated jobs.

Boehner and the two oth­er top House GOP lead­ers were among the cham­ber’s 40 most-con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers in the 2009 rat­ings. This group at the con­ser­vat­ive end of the House’s ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum also in­cludes a fa­mil­i­ar com­pon­ent: 10 Tex­ans.

Boehner, the 14th-most-con­ser­vat­ive House mem­ber in 2009, has a repu­ta­tion for oc­ca­sion­ally mod­er­ate vot­ing be­ha­vi­or, partly be­cause of his of­ten-bi­par­tis­an work as chair­man of the since-re­named House Edu­ca­tion and the Work­force Com­mit­tee from 2001 to ‘06. He has been con­sist­ently con­ser­vat­ive since tak­ing over as minor­ity lead­er in 2007, however. “Some people still ally Boehner with the cent­rists,” a House GOP aide said. “But these res­ults show that he is a lead­ing con­ser­vat­ive.”

By con­trast, the rank­ing GOP mem­bers on key House com­mit­tees mostly had less con­ser­vat­ive scores than the party lead­ers. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who took over last year as the top mem­ber on Ways and Means, ranked in the one-fourth of House Re­pub­lic­ans with the most-mod­er­ate scores; Camp has been viewed as a main­stream con­ser­vat­ive who is com­fort­able with Boehner.

With their largely uni­fied ranks, House Re­pub­lic­ans have typ­ic­ally kept their eyes glued on the Demo­crats and their grow­ing de­fec­tions. Hav­ing suffered their own pain­ful loss of the ma­jor­ity in 2006, Re­pub­lic­ans are mind­ful that the polit­ic­al fates some­times trump le­gis­lat­ive mach­in­a­tions and in­de­pend­ent votes. As a House GOP lead­er­ship aide noted, “Many of their fresh­men know that they are in dif­fi­cult dis­tricts. But their votes won’t help them at the end of the day.”

Re­search As­so­ci­ate Peter Bell as­sisted in com­pil­ing the vote rat­ings.

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