The House Minority Is the New House Majority

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) speaks during a news conference January 16, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House Democrats held a news conference to announce new legislation to eliminate the federal debt ceiling.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:56 p.m.

In a nor­mal polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, the minor­ity party in the House has the least clout in Con­gress. With no need for a su­per­ma­jor­ity to move con­ten­tious le­gis­la­tion or the abil­ity to block bills from the ma­jor­ity, as oc­curs in the Sen­ate, the lower cham­ber’s minor­ity his­tor­ic­ally has had a more lim­ited role in le­gis­lat­ing.

But we are not in a nor­mal polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment. These days, the minor­ity is act­ing like the ma­jor­ity.

Ob­vi­ously House Demo­crats can’t con­trol the floor or bring up their bills. But dur­ing the past few ma­jor fisc­al fights, a nearly united House Demo­crat­ic Caucus has car­ried bills across the fin­ish line, des­pite be­ing out­numbered by Re­pub­lic­ans. The last not­able time this oc­curred was dur­ing the fisc­al-cliff show­down, in which House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship was forced to put a bill up for a vote that re­ceived sup­port from more than twice as many Demo­crats as Re­pub­lic­ans. Only 16 Demo­crats voted against it, com­pared with 151 Re­pub­lic­ans.

While the Re­pub­lic­an con­fer­ence has been di­vided in these big battles, House Demo­crats have been re­mark­ably uni­fied — with some mem­bers grit­ting their teeth and cast­ing votes for bills they don’t like. Many Demo­crats at­trib­ute that to a lead­er­ship that has a proven abil­ity to de­liv­er votes.

“What counts is not how many Demo­crat­ic votes there are, what counts is how you get it to 218, and we will get it to 218,” Rep. Steve Is­rael, D-N.Y., said hours be­fore the vote on the Sen­ate agree­ment to re­open the gov­ern­ment and tem­por­ar­ily lift the debt ceil­ing.

The meas­ure passed the House late Wed­nes­day with 198 Demo­crat­ic votes, des­pite a num­ber of pro­gress­ives strongly dis­ap­prov­ing of the se­quester-driv­en fund­ing levels in­cluded in the deal.

“We hate them, but we hate the shut­down more,” said Rep. Keith El­lis­on, D-Minn., co­chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus.

“As much as we be­lieve in what we be­lieve in as pro­gress­ives, we would nev­er dream of shut­ting the gov­ern­ment down over our pri­or­it­ies. That might dis­ap­point some pro­gress­ives, but the truth is it’s just wrong for the Amer­ic­an people,” El­lis­on said. “I fer­vently want to see some real gun con­trol, some real gun safety, but I would nev­er try to wreck the coun­try over it.”

Even Rep. Rosa De­Lauro of Con­necti­c­ut — one of just 16 Demo­crats who voted against the fisc­al-cliff deal be­cause the tax rates for wealth­i­er Amer­ic­ans were still too low for her — said hours be­fore the vote on the Sen­ate agree­ment, “I’m go­ing to wait to see what it has in it, but I want to keep the gov­ern­ment open and I want to see the debt ceil­ing raised.”

“Our caucus has a sense of loy­alty to each oth­er and to our com­mon pur­pose,” said Rep. Jim Mor­an, D-Va. “There is a bond of unity. Our in­di­vidu­al dif­fer­ences and our geo­graph­ic­al dif­fer­ences can be put aside with something this im­port­ant.”

There was little grumbling among House Demo­crats leav­ing their caucus meet­ing Wed­nes­day. In­stead, there was a rauc­ous ap­plause. Not in re­sponse to “win­ning” a ne­go­ti­ation, said Rep. John Lar­son, D-Conn. “[Rep.] Jim Cly­burn told a won­der­ful story about unity, grow­ing up in South Car­o­lina.”

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