Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was dubbed “The Hammer” for his approach to rounding up votes when he served as Majority Whip. But the new chief nose-counter for House Democrats appears to be finding success with a much more understated approach to the job.
The highly diverse Democratic Caucus is still far short of unanimity on most votes, but leaders are riding high after closing ranks on key tax and spending ballots.
In this Congress, Democrats have displayed their strongest cohesion in eight years on the budget resolution and the latest tax-cut measure pushed by the GOP. And those tallies came with a smaller minority — just 205 Members — than in any of the past four Congresses.
Democrats attribute the trend to the efforts of a new Minority Whip and Leader and a different mindset in the Caucus, one that makes clear members are expected to vote with the party and that support for a less than perfect Democratic proposal is better for their long-term interests than siding with the GOP.
“It’s not a question of browbeating,” said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “It’s a question of including and convincing.”
As part of that strategy, Hoyer and a team of about 100 Whips work Democratic Members over on bills weeks to months in advance of votes and schedule dozens of meetings with different sectors of the Caucus to convince them to stay with the team. They are also turning to the private sector to help turn up the heat on waffling Members on key votes.
Hoyer said Democrats realize they can’t threaten Members and hope they will stay in line, believing strong-willed, independent-minded Members won’t respond favorably when faced with a heavy-handed approach.
What they can do, however, is talk to enough Members to determine the prevailing view on a key issue, he said. Not every Member will be 100 percent behind a position, but they will be supportive enough of the broader idea to toe the party line.
As for those Democrats who consistently sway to the right, Hoyer said: “You hold their hand, you talk to them, you cajole them.” And if they still vote with the GOP, Hoyer’s philosophy is: “You aren’t going to be successful in the long run if you are worrying about what they did yesterday. It’s about what they do tomorrow.”
During the first go-round on the 2003 Bush tax cut, 199 Democrats opposed the bill, with the Caucus losing just four Members to the GOP. That marked the smallest defection on a tax bill since President Bush took office in 2001. When the final version came back to the House, seven Democrats joined the GOP to approve the conference report, a number which still pleased party leaders.
Tax votes, in particular, are a challenge, Democrats acknowledge, because they are so often politically popular. In 2001, when Congress considered Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut, 28 Democrats jumped to side with the GOP.
The difficulties in holding Democrats together on such votes are manifold, beginning with the number of Members representing swing districts where GOP candidates can easily threaten their incumbency.
Hoyer said by meeting with Members early, making them feel involved and gathering different viewpoints on upcoming bills, Members eventually feel a sense of ownership over Democratic proposals which stiffens their opposition to GOP plans.
“None of this was overnight, we didn’t just wave a wand,” Hoyer said.
In the 1980s, when Democrats held overwhelming majorities, the concerns of many Members were ignored because the party could absorb a large number of defections and allow Members to vote their political interests, he said. After eight years in the minority, however, Democrats can’t afford to ignore any Member now, Hoyer said, even if that Member is prone to buck the party.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a Chief Deputy Whip, said Democrats owe the change to Hoyer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who have worked to make Members stakeholders in key pieces of legislation. Crowley and other Democrats say it helps to have a liberal leader and moderate Whip to bring divergent views together to build consensus.
“To get Democrats unified you must raise the expectation that unless you have a very good reason to object to a piece of legislation that you will be with us on many of these issues,” he said. “DeLay has the reputation of being ‘The Hammer.’ Well, we’d like him to use it as often as possible.”
While House Democrats are quick to spread the credit for increased unity among all their leaders, Republicans are taking notice of Hoyer, whom they deem a tough opponent knowledgeable about procedural and vote tactics that keep the GOP’s eyes open.
“The two previous Whips were not ever particularly focused,” said one GOP leadership aide. “Pelosi had her sights on other things. [Hoyer] clearly is organized, he wanted this job and he’s focused on it. That in and of itself makes him a more formidable opponent than Republicans have had” in a long time.
But Democrats say Pelosi is doing her part as well, trying to impart to the Caucus the importance of presenting a clear alternative to the Republican agenda. Democratic sources noted that Pelosi has even pressured Members to step away from offering additional legislative alternatives to the primary Democratic proposal.
“You’ve got to do this strategy,” said one top Democratic aide. “It shows our unity that there is a real alternative out there, that there’s a difference between the two parties and that we stand for something.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Senior Chief Deputy Whip, said in his 17 years in office he’s never seen such an investment of time in building consensus on legislation before a bill even hits the floor. It begins with the Caucus’ weekly Senior Whip meeting to determine what issues will be worked on, followed by sessions with key Members on the issue, and then by fanning out to the Caucus to take temperatures and determine who needs persuading, he said.
Lewis said that while Democrats still may lose two or three Members on a major vote, the new approach will consistently keep those numbers low.
“People are convinced that more than ever before you need to have unity — not just in spirit but in actuality,” he said.
Another Chief Deputy Whip, Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dogs, said Hoyer is “working our fingers to the bone” trying to keep Members on board on votes. And, he said, it appears Democrats are starting to understand the political implications of sticking together.
When asked whether the success rate can be sustained, Hill said: “The longer we go the harder it becomes to sustain it. But I have confidence.”
The optimism stems not only from the tax vote, but also from Democrats’ recent vote on the 2003 budget resolution conference report in which they voted 203-0 against the final version. On the original bill, Democrats lost one vote to the Republicans, voting 199-1 against the plan.
While they’ve largely stuck together in opposition, Democrats concede they still have some ground to gain on assembling support for their own alternatives.
On their own budget alternative, something they failed to offer in 2002, 191 Democrats voted in favor and 11 voted against it. That still marked an improvement over 2001, when 23 Members voted against their own plan, and in 2000, when 19 Democrats balked.
And the Caucus is feeling good about having a budget plan this year at all, given the party was deeply divided on whether to present a proposal and what it should contain.
Beyond even their own structural changes, Hoyer said a weak economy has been a major boost in unifying Democrats in 2003, allowing the party to align against a majority they believe isn’t getting the job done.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), one of the Caucus’ most liberal members and a presidential hopeful, said the outside factors may even be the greatest influence in unifying Democrats. That’s particularly true on tax and budget issues, since the party feels so strongly that Republicans are steering the country down the wrong path.
“The power of unity is at its maximum when we are united on matters of principle,” Kucinich said.
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