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New Democrat Coalition Sees Opportunity in Party’s Losses

The business-friendly New Democrat Coalition is ready to take a leading role in helping the Obama administration advance legislation after Republicans take control of the House in the 112th Congress, its members and senior Democratic aides say.

Like House Democrats at large, the New Democrats took a hit in the November midterm elections. But they believe that their centrist stance will put them in a strong position to bridge the gap with Republicans on trade, taxes and other legislative priorities for both the coalition and the administration.

The New Democrats will have a “huge role to play,” Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (Texas) said this month, before the House adjourned.

The intractable differences between Republicans and progressive Democrats and the electoral losses suffered by the fiscally conservative Democrats of the Blue Dog Coalition will make the New Democrat Coalition the go-to organization for moving legislation, he added.

“I think we actually represent the best prospects of reaching that middle ground on many issues and working with a Republican majority,” Gonzalez said, while conceding that the Blue Dogs will have a voice at the table. 

Trade issues in particular, including a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea, will present opportunities for the New Democrats, according to Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.). “The New Dem Caucus has been a philosophically pro-free-trade caucus, so I think it’s going to play a pivotal role,” Connolly said this month.

The New Democrat Coalition was formed in 1997 and enjoyed several years of influence while President Bill Clinton, a political ally, was in the White House. However, the group foundered after George W. Bush took office, and it has been working since 2006 to rebuild itself by asserting its moderate voice within the party and by strengthening its fundraising capacity and connections downtown.

The November midterm elections presented another setback for the coalition. Its membership is expected to be in the mid-40s next year, down from 69 in the 111th Congress, after incoming freshmen and other prospective new members are interviewed and accepted into the group, according to a senior Democratic aide affiliated with the coalition.

“We did lose a number of great minds” in the coalition in the midterm elections, New Democrat Chairman Joe Crowley (N.Y.) said at a Third Way breakfast in December with Vice Chairman Ron Kind (Wis.). Many of the losses were seats that historically have been held by Republicans, Crowley added.

New Democrats will need to be assertive in the next Congress to compensate, Connolly said.

“The Democratic Caucus has shrunk, and in terms of percentage of members the moderate centrists’ percentage has shrunk with that,” he said. “So making sure that there’s a strong pro-business centrist bloc in the Congress that is articulate and is willing to work with leadership and others in the Caucus to get things done and across the aisle is really important.”

The group has only had one meeting to analyze the 111th Congress and the midterm elections, according to several Members and aides who attended. It will also hold a retreat, usually scheduled in January, to further solidify the issues it will tackle and to create task forces.

One senior Democratic aide said the coalition’s effectiveness will depend on whether it moves aggressively from the outset of the session.

“They don’t have the luxury to wait and see how things unfold,” the aide said. “The administration is trying to move, and clearly, at least in the last couple of weeks, they are trying to find common ground with Republicans.”

That could bode well for the New Democrats, whose districts are considered more liberal than Blue Dogs’, and so they may be able to take on a more public role in the negotiations than the fiscal conservatives. “Typically the makeup of [the Blue Dogs’] districts make it a little harder for them to work with the administration,” the aide said.

The group’s course in the 112th Congress will be set by its new leadership. A senior Democratic aide close to the New Democrats said they are expected to meet after the 112th Congress begins next month to select their leaders, and Crowley has not yet publicly said whether he plans to run for another term as chairman.

There will also be a shake-up at the second-tier leadership level. Rep. Melissa Bean (Ill.), one of the group’s four vice chairmen, was unseated in November, and there is speculation that Vice Chairman Adam Smith (Wash.) will step down now that he has been named the next ranking member on the Armed Services Committee. 

Smith’s spokesman, Michael Amato, said his boss would remain a committed member of the New Democrat Coalition.

“These are decisions that will be made early next year,” Amato said in a statement regarding whether the Washington state Democrat would leave the New Democrats’ leadership ranks.

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