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.

What We're Following See More »
Prosecutors Weighing Whether to Charge Greg Craig
14 hours ago

A long-running federal investigation into former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig "is reaching a critical stage, presenting the Justice Department with a decision about whether to charge a prominent Democrat as part of a more aggressive crackdown on illegal foreign lobbying." Federal prosecutors in New York have transferred the case to Washington. ... The investigation centers on whether Mr. Craig should have disclosed work he did in 2012 — while he was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom — on behalf of the Russia-aligned government of Viktor F. Yanukovych, then the president of Ukraine. The work was steered to Mr. Craig by Paul Manafort."

Feds Raided Broidy's Offices Last Year
20 hours ago

"Federal authorities raided the office of Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy last summer, seeking records related to his dealings with foreign officials and Trump administration associates, according to a sealed search warrant obtained by ProPublica. Agents were authorized to use the megadonor’s hands and face to unlock any phones that required fingerprint or facial scans."

House Approves Resolution to Release Mueller Report, 420-0
4 days ago

"The House on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the Justice Department to make special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings and full report public and available to Congress. The 420-0 vote came after a fiery debate on the House floor, during which some Democratic lawmakers were admonished for their criticisms of President Donald Trump. Republicans said the resolution was unnecessary and a waste of time, but ultimately joined Democrats to approve it. Four Republicans — Reps. Justin Amash of Michigan, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Thomas Massie of Kentucky — voted 'present.'"

Stone Trial Set for Nov. 5
4 days ago
Andrew Weissmann Stepping Down
4 days ago

"One of the most prominent members of special counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating Russia's attack on the 2016 presidential election will soon leave the office and the Justice Department, two sources close to the matter tell NPR. Andrew Weissmann, the architect of the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, will study and teach at New York University and work on a variety of public service projects, including his longstanding interest in preventing wrongful convictions by shoring up forensic science standards used in courts, the sources added. The departure is the strongest sign yet that Mueller and his team have all but concluded their work."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.