By Martin Kady II
There was a time when to be a Democrat in Congress was akin to belonging to a luncheon club just so you could eat the food and enjoy the people. Staying for the program wasn’t such a priority. No longer. Democrats on Capitol Hill are relying more on what has been the GOP political playbook, staying in step and sometimes getting tough with those who miss a beat.
A decade after Republicans determined there was value in strict adherence to party discipline, the message has sunk in on the other side of the aisle, and 2005 was a breakout year. Over the past half-century, Democrats in the House were never more unified than last year, an analysis of roll call votes by Congressional Quarterly shows. And only twice before, in 1999 and 2001, were Senate Democrats more united than in 2005.
At the same time, House Republicans, who have played at this game much longer, increased their party loyalty a bit last year over 2004, though they didn’t quite meet the record they set in 1995 — the year they took command of the chamber for the first time in four decades — and reached twice since in 2001 and 2003. Only Senate Republicans fell off the pace in 2005, dropping well below the level of partisan cohesion they reached in 2003. That year, in fact, still appears to have been the most partisan in Congress since World War II.
One manifestation of the leaders’ demand for loyalty is a rising number of roll call votes on which a majority of Republicans line up against a majority of Democrats: These are party unity votes as defined by CQ. Last year, almost half of the 669 recorded votes in the House met this definition, as did almost two-thirds of the 366 Senate roll calls. Overall, party unity scores show Congress is becoming more divided on more issues more often, leaving little room for compromise on major issues.
Moreover, rising Democratic unity has forced the majority Republicans to work harder to win — and resulted in a few high-profile GOP defeats that also jeopardized the legislative agenda of President Bush.
An utter lack of Democratic support, for example, required Republican leaders to twist arms and make promises to preserve very narrow victories in both chambers on a spending cut bill that still must survive one more test in the House early this year. Likewise, most Democrats refused to vote for the Central American Free Trade Agreement — the centerpiece of Bush’s trade agenda — leaving Republicans to scramble to win sufficient support from within their own ranks. And when House Democrats held tighter than the Republicans on a bill to permit federally financed medical research using embryonic stem cells, the GOP and the president both suffered a loss.
It’s no coincidence that all three of those votes show up in a companion CQ analysis of the president’s influence last year and were picked by CQ’s editors as among the 28 “key votes” of 2005. (Presidential support, p. 80; key votes, p. 108)
“Democrats are emboldened,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Democrats . . . are going to be more cohesive when they’re in the minority when they think they have an incentive to regain the majority.”
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California showed last year that she has learned from former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other GOP practitioners of strong-arm tactics to keep her caucus aligned. So serious have Democrats become about catching up — both at the ballot box and in party discipline — that in mid-December, Pelosi lambasted Edolphus Towns of New York for being absent during a crucial roll call on the spending cut bill that Republicans won by two votes.
Pelosi threatened to yank Towns’ seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which would ordinarily be a high price to pay for a single missed roll call. But Towns was a repeat offender in Pelosi’s book, having helped the opposition by voting in favor of the Central America trade pact in July. Then, as well, the GOP had prevailed by two votes.
“Traditionally we haven’t been this unified,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., who voted with his party colleagues 99 percent of the time in 2005.
He gave credit to Pelosi, a liberal Californian who critics said early on would be too out of step with the mainstream to be an effective leader. “It’s primarily a reflection of Nancy’s leadership as a persuasive voice to people all across the board,” he said. “You can’t dismiss her as some wild-eyed San Francisco liberal.”
The evidence of rising unity is in the numbers: House Democrats voted with their party colleagues a record 88 percent of the time in 2005, just below the 90 percent average party support score House Republicans posted. The previous high for House Democrats was 87 percent in 2003; House Republicans reached 91 percent that year, in 2001 and in 1995.
In the Senate, both parties stuck together 88 percent of the time in 2005. For Democrats, that was a jump from an 83 percent average party support score in 2004, and just a hair below their record of 89 percent set in 1999 and 2001. For Senate Republicans, the drop in support from a record 94 percent in 2003 and a 90 percent score in 2004 helps explain why they lost several critical votes in the days before Congress adjourned for the year.
“In the last six months, it’s clearly been a more partisan place,” said Todd Akin of Missouri, one of five House Republicans who voted with his party more than 99 percent of the time in 2005. “It’s a precursor to a rigorous election season.”
Still, GOP leaders scoff at the idea that Democrats are making any headway. And Republicans say they have remained remarkably unified considering the political pressures that accompany public sentiment about the war in Iraq and the task of running Congress in the face of increasingly aggressive tactics by the minority Democrats.
“On the issues that are most important to the American people, the Republicans have been united,” said Amy Call, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who at times has struggled to control his chamber.
Rising Democratic unity can also be seen in the frequency with which lawmakers voted unanimously on party unity roll calls. For years, GOP leader have managed often to squelch defections in their ranks — and in the notable partisan year of 2003, Republicans on both sides of the Capitol were unanimous on 239 party unity votes.
Partisanship High as Democrats Still Lag Behind GOP
Democrats rose to the occasion last year, voting unanimously 82 times in the House and 69 times in the Senate. Those totals essentially matched the 91 times that Republicans voted unanimously in the House and the 59 times they did so in the Senate.
“I can’t remember as many votes with 100 percent Democrats as we’ve had in the past couple of months,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Hoyer attributed the cohesion of his party’s caucus to a coming of age of Pelosi’s leadership — which has been under fire as Democrats struggled the past few years — and to what he termed “an exclusively partisan agenda” on the part of GOP leaders. “Whether you are conservative, liberal or moderate you find yourself disagreeing with the Republicans,” he said.
He may have a point that is borne out in declining individual party unity scores for at least a dozen moderates in the Republican Party who feel alienated, as well as for some fiscal conservatives in the House who voted against Republican spending initiatives they thought were too expensive. At the same time, party unity scores for some moderate Democrats also fell in 2005, suggesting that disaffection with the deeper partisan strains of the leadership extends across the aisle.
The shift by moderates was especially evident among blue-state Republican senators, such as Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, who have found it increasingly difficult to stick with their party on close votes. Collins’ support score declined 19 points to 59 percent, and Snowe’s score dropped 15 points to 56 percent.
Their defections, like that of Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who backed his party less than half the time in 2005, will undoubtedly make it harder for Frist to accomplish his goals. This is Frist’s last year to make his mark as a legislator and a leader in preparation for a possible presidential run in 2008. He will not seek re-election to the Senate when his term ends in 2006.
Chafee, who represents a state that Democratic Sen. John Kerry carried by 20 points in the 2004 presidential election, says he isn’t ashamed that he stayed with his party on only 47 percent of last year’s party unity votes.
Unanimous Votes Are More Common
“I strive for consistency,” he said with a chuckle when informed that his party support score was dead last among Republicans for the sixth straight year. “I would hope that consistency is there and that’s what Rhode Islanders want.”
Senate moderates have always been an important bloc in a chamber where the minority can block almost any legislation if they can muster 40 votes to sustain a filibuster. But over the past year, GOP moderates became a more significant voting bloc in the House, too.
Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, Sherwood Boehlert of New York and Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut are among a handful whose party support scores dropped. While moderates have often been ignored by conservative leaders in the House, their power was on display briefly when they blocked passage of the spending cut measure and demanded that a provision be removed that would have allowed oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“Moderate Republicans represent that old silent majority,” said Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, whose party support score dropped to 80 percent from 85 percent. “This is the dawning of a new day.”
Some moderate Senate Democrats also shied from their party last year. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Kent Conrad of North Dakota all voted with Republicans more often in 2005 than in 2004. Nelson was last among Democrats, voting with his party only 46 percent of the time.
And while Nelson’s supporters in the strongly Republican state of Nebraska may remain comfortable with his record of defections, some GOP senators facing tough re-election fights in 2006 are finding similar reasons to occasionally abandon their party.
Party Unity Leading Scorers, Background and History
Mike DeWine of Ohio, who has trailed in his 2006 re-election campaign in some public opinion polls, saw his party support score drop to 70 percent from 79 percent. Chafee, who already has a primary challenger, dropped to 47 percent from 65 percent. Even the reliably conservative Rick Santorum, who trails in Pennsylvania surveys, dropped to 92 percent in his party support score from 96 percent. That put the chairman of the Republican Conference in the middle of the pack among fellow GOP senators.
Santorum dismissed his decline in party loyalty as having nothing to do with his election. “I’m sure it fluctuates every year,” he said. “It just depends on what the votes are on.”
And Jim Talent of Missouri, who trails in early public opinion surveys and whose party support score dropped to 84 percent from 96 percent, said he is willing to stand apart from his party on core issues and that his overall loyalty to the GOP is not in question. “I’m not aware of the [party unity] scores, but I am aware when I’m disagreeing with my party or when I criticize the administration” on an issue, Talent said.
The impact of election-year politics wasn’t limited to GOP senators. Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who is running for Frist’s Senate seat in a firmly Republican state, came across as more moderate in 2005, as his party support score dropped 7 points to 83 percent.
Rising Democratic unity is boosting the confidence of the party’s leaders. In the Senate, by banding together and winning a few GOP allies, Democrats derailed renewal of the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act. In fact, they closed the year by winning seven of the last eight party unity votes.
Party Unity Vote Charts
In the House, Democrats rarely win major votes because they are badly outnumbered and the Republicans closely control the debate. But Pelosi has made her GOP counterparts work harder to win. “When I became leader, the Democrats were sort of a co-op. It was an amalgamation of ideas,” Pelosi said. “We’ve decided to define ourselves and our priorities.”
On the CAFTA vote, for example, House Republican leaders had to hold the roll call open after midnight July 27 while cajoling some of their more hesitant rank-and-file members to vote for the trade agreement. And on Nov. 17, the first time House leaders brought the conference agreement on the fiscal 2006 Labor/Health and Human Services spending bill up for a vote, all 201 Democrats voted against it, joined by 22 Republicans. Together, they temporarily killed the measure until it could be retooled and brought back to the House floor.
Republicans, meanwhile, have been working to instill party discipline in the next generation of House leaders — freshmen such as Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana. McHenry backed his party 99 percent of the time on party unity votes. Jindal voted with Republicans 97 percent of the time, and emphasized the few occasions he did not go along with party marching orders. “More important than the number is looking at the particular issue,” Jindal said. “There have been times where I voted against the party, like CAFTA.”
The More Things Change . . .
Despite a handful of significant partisan departures, several reliable trends continued in 2005.
For instance, Southern Democrats representing Republican states were the least loyal to their party, while Northern Republicans parted ways with the GOP more often than colleagues from other regions. And strong delegation-wide support for their parties was logged by Texas Republicans, California Democrats and Massachusetts Democrats.
There is no reason to expect the divisive atmosphere in either chamber will change in the current year, with an election 10 months away and Capitol Hill captivated by the latest installment in the saga of superlobbyist-turned-confessed-criminal Jack Abramoff, whose Jan. 3 guilty plea rattled the ranks of lawmakers and lobbyists alike.
“Parties aren’t letting up,” said Binder, the Brookings scholar. “They may look even more partisan in an election year. The minority won’t have much incentive to hand victories to the majority.”
The GOP majority, in turn, is likely to be highly motivated to stay unified as it strives to give its members opportunities to show a record of accomplishment to the voters who will decide how many Republicans return to Congress next year.
As 2005 wound down, Blunt reflected on the first session of the 109th Congress and public opinion polls showing a negative opinion of the legislative branch, and he professed to see a silver lining in those clouds: the expectation of a positive reaction to the session-closing votes to trim government spending, provide funding for military operations, and provide help for the states devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“People’s dissatisfaction with gas prices and the war has had an effect,” he said. “What we’ve done over the last three weeks will have a positive impact on people’s view of Congress.”