How House Democrats Got Their Groove Back

For Immediate Release:

June 14, 2003

Contact:Jonathan Allen

CQ Weekly

When Sen. Blanche Lincoln was introduced at a June 11 caucus meeting in the basement of the Capitol, House Democrats received her with a particularly boisterous ovation.

The reason for the heroine's welcome: the Arkansas Democrat's proposal to expand a child tax credit for low-income families. That idea — and Republicans' failure to include it in the recently enacted tax cut law (PL 108-27) — crystallized for Democrats the argument that Republican tax policy benefits well-to-do folks at the expense of low- and middle-income workers.

By the time they met with Lincoln, House Democrats were already into their second week of trying to shame Republicans into expanding the tax credit. They used every tool in their arsenal: floor speeches, dilatory tactics — even an unusual tactic of sinking otherwise non-controversial suspension bills by failing to provide the two-thirds majority required for passage.

The Senate had already capitulated June 5, passing, 94-2, a $10 billion measure (HR 1308) to allow more lower income parents to share in the new tax law's temporary increase in the per-child credit. (CQ Weekly, p. 1371)

A week later, House Republicans moved similar legislation to the floor, but not before adding another $72 billion in tax breaks. While Democrats overwhelmingly opposed that bill, they clearly took some pleasure in forcing Republicans to take up a child tax credit expansion that the GOP balked at only days earlier. Furthermore, Democrats prevailed, 205-201, on a non-binding motion to instruct conferees to accept the narrower Senate-passed version of the bill.

It was only the latest in a string of modest victories for House Democrats. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland are getting high marks for building consensus in their diverse caucus and capitalizing on the mistakes of their common enemy to create a renewed sense of unity and purpose.

It takes a fair measure of party discipline to win such fights in the House, where the minority is often rendered irrelevant. While party discipline has been the undisputed hallmark of Republican success in recent years, Democrats have shown themselves to be more able adversaries of late.

"You have to bide your time and wait on your openings," said South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "They've given us significant openings."

Or, as second-termer Hilda L. Solis of California put it: "Democrats have found their groove."

Building Momentum

In addition to losing at least the public relations fight on the child tax credit, the GOP stumbled badly a week earlier on a bill (HR 1119) that would have allowed employers to give workers compensatory time off rather than overtime pay. (CQ Weekly, p. 1388)

Republican leaders gave themselves a short window after the Memorial Day recess to round up votes for the legislation. Meanwhile, labor unions, which view the measure as a threat to workers' rights, had been hard at work lobbying moderate Republicans to oppose it.

The last time the House considered similar legislation, in 1997, Republicans were able to offset deserters by mining the Democratic ranks for a handful of votes. (1997 Almanac, p. 7-22)

This time around, there were few such Democratic hands to be found.

"When moderate Republicans seek to get some relief from the pressure of their leadership . . . they require a concomitant number of Democrats to cross over, and the Democrats are tired of providing that succor, that flexibility, to moderate Republicans," said former Rep. Vic Fazio of California (1979-99), who served as Democratic Caucus chairman and is now a partner at the lobbying firm Clark and Weinstock.

Lacking the votes they needed to pass the comp time bill, GOP leaders pulled the measure from the June 5 floor schedule. It was a major victory for organized labor and a rare win for Democrats.

That fight ran concurrently with the early stages of the battle on the child tax credit, building a sense of momentum for Democrats.

Two days earlier, Republicans lost on two suspension bills — one dealing with Zuni water rights (S 222) and one approving a Grand Tetons National Park land swap (S 273) — when Democrats voted "no" in an organized protest of the new tax law's child tax credit provisions. (The bills, which the Democrats did not oppose on substance, passed two days later under regular procedures requiring only a majority vote for passage.)

"Unity is catchy," GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio said when asked about her rivals' leadership. "Any minor success will help fan that flame."

Democratic members say the victories have helped energize and galvanize the caucus. And they are quick to credit the efforts of Pelosi and Hoyer.

Despite a long campaign against each other for the whip's job in 2001 — a race that Pelosi won — the former rivals appear to be working well in tandem now, putting aside their substantial ideological and stylistic differences for the good of the caucus.

"I think each has sort of hacked out their areas of concern and responsibility," Fazio said. For example, Hoyer is working to strengthen Democratic ties to the business community. And Pelosi has delved deeply into setting the House Democrats' communications strategy.

"The key is they're both professionals. This isn't a love business," said Albert R. Wynn of Maryland, a member of Hoyer's whip shop. "They're more effective working together than working at cross purposes."

Wynn's attitude seems to have permeated through much of the caucus.

Pelosi "really has argued that on critical issues that the party really needs to be united, and she's been able to deliver," said Pennsylvanian Chaka Fattah, who was displeased earlier this year when Pelosi forced him to choose between his seat on the Appropriations Committee, which he kept, and the top Democratic slot on the House Administration panel. (CQ Weekly, p. 251)

Several members singled out Pelosi's focus on fashioning Democratic alternatives to Republican budget and tax proposals as important indicators of her leadership abilities.

In 2002, Republicans were able to bludgeon Democrats for not offering a budget alternative on the House floor. "The other party has come here not to praise any budget but to bury it," said Republican Tom DeLay of Texas, then the majority whip. "They are demonstrating the height of fiscal irresponsibility because they offer no budget at all for our country."

This year, the Democrats offered an alternative to the fiscal 2004 budget resolution (H Con Res 95) and kept all but 11 of their members in line to support it. On the tax bill, only seven Democrats defected to support the conference report adopted May 23. (CQ Weekly, p. 1245)

By contrast, in 2001, when Congress approved President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut bill (PL 107-16), 28 Democrats voted for it. Though there have been some membership changes, 18 Democrats who supported the 2001 cut opposed the 2003 cut. (2001 Almanac, p. 18-3)

Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., says Democrats are able to attain near unanimity this year because Republican proposals are "so over the top."

Unifying Factors

Furthermore, the belief that Republicans are treating all Democrats — be they liberal, moderate or conservative — unfairly is clearly contributing to Democratic cohesion.

"The Republican leadership feeding us all from the same spoon is a rude awakening for some of our factions," Clyburn said.

That, according to Fazio, keeps the number of crossover votes down. "They know one thing, and that is there's no payoff for being at all supportive of the Republicans," he said.

While rank-and-file Democrats give Republicans some of the credit for creating unity in the Democratic caucus, they say efforts by Pelosi and Hoyer to solicit opinions from all corners of the caucus are having an impact as well.

"We have seen policies advanced by the caucus that are truly representative of the broad swath of thinking that we represent," said Rick Boucher, a southwest Virginia Democrat now in his 11th term.

"I think their efforts are a lot stronger than they ever were under Mr. Gephardt," added Mississippian Gene Taylor, a conservative. "They do at least take the time to ask you what you think." At the beginning of the 107th and 108th congresses, Taylor voted for Pennsylvanian John P. Murtha for Speaker of the House, rather than Pelosi and her predecessor, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Democrats, who often feel shut out of the legislative process in the House, reserve some of their highest praise for their leadership's expanded use of its limited arsenal on the floor. Pelosi and Hoyer are showing a greater willingness to go head-to-head with Republicans by forcing procedural votes, testing the limits of parliamentary rules and decorum and turning as many debates as possible toward economic issues, regardless of what legislation is actually on the floor at the time.

And many Democrats say illustrating the difference between the parties and motivating the people who agree with them is ultimately their ticket out of the minority.

It is a strategy that former GOP Rep. Robert S. Walker (1977-97) of Pennsylvania recognized from his days in the minority.

"What we found was that our tactics on the floor made you heroes to people out there who wanted to see our side stand up and fight," said Walker, who dogged the Democratic majority by frequently forcing roll call votes on matters that are routinely handled by voice vote. "We helped communicate a message to activists around the country."

Democrat Solis predicted that her party's new assertiveness will have a similar payoff. "It's certainly going to give encouragement to the people we represent," she said.

Source: CQ Weekly
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