New Democrats Hope to Build Bridge

Posted January 21, 2011 at 5:37pm

Liberals still dominate the House Democratic Caucus, but that isn’t stopping the members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition from trying to expand their reach.

The pro-business group, scheduled to hold its annual retreat today, is hoping to act as a bridge between President Barack Obama’s administration and the House Republican majority on several major initiatives this Congress, including education reform and free-trade agreements.

“There is opportunity for collaboration,” Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) said.

Harman, a New Democrat, said the Obama administration is signaling that the president wants to work with moderate Democrats with the recent appointments of Bruce Reed as Vice President Joseph Biden’s chief of staff and William Daley as Obama’s top aide. Reed served as executive director of the president’s fiscal commission, and Daley, who served as Commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton, has a long history with Wall Street and the business community.

“I think that the New Dems will have bigger opportunity than perhaps previously because of those appointments,” Harman said.

At today’s meeting, the coalition will vote on its leadership slate and hold an internal discussion on its priorities for the new Congress, according to an aide familiar with the agenda.

The New Democrat Coalition, which has 38 members, is also proposing to add at least five new members and is looking to add an education task force and a critical infrastructure and manufacturing task force.

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the group, sent a letter Thursday announcing his intention to stay on as its leader and a proposed leadership slate to run alongside him. Reps. Ron Kind (Wis.) and Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) will remain as vice chairmen. Crowley also named Reps. Jim Himes (Conn.) and Rick Larsen (Wash.) as two new vice chairmen. They will replace former Rep. Melissa Bean (Ill.), who lost in the November elections, and Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), who will continue to be a member of the group but is not seeking a leadership position so he can focus on his ranking member job on the Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.) will also take over Smith’s role as chairman of the group’s political action committee.

“I believe strongly the New Democrat Coalition is uniquely positioned to help address the challenges and opportunities facing our nation and to re-energize our party to regain the majority,” Crowley wrote in his letter. “I am confident that our organization can continue to play a key role in the Democratic Caucus, and if elected I, along with my leadership team, will use this platform to build coalitions and work with the Administration, our party leadership and like-minded colleagues in Congress to move our nation forward.”

The New Democrats suffered a major hit to their ranks in November, losing nearly half of their 69 members to re-election losses and retirements. Now just 38 members strong, the coalition is looking to expand its ranks in the 112th Congress. Reps. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), John Carney (Del.), Bill Owens (N.Y.) and Cedric Richmond (La.) and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi are expected to be approved by the coalition as new inductees.

Leading the new task forces will be Reps. Susan Davis (Calif.) and Jared Polis (Colo.) on education and Larsen, Altmire and Rep. Laura Richardson (Calif.) on infrastructure.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), who had signaled to Crowley that she would like to play a key role on energy policy prior to the Tucson shooting, will also be named as a co-chairwoman, along with Reps. Rush Holt (N.J.) and Ed Perlmutter (Colo.).

The New Democrat Coalition emerged in 1997 when Clinton was in the White House, and its members are hoping to regain their footing in a divided government. The group floundered after President George W. Bush took office, and it has been working to find a foothold as the moderate voice in Congress.

Tax reform and deficit reduction will also be areas where the coalition hopes to have an effect, according to a senior aide to one of the group’s members.

“Those are areas where there is potential agreement,” the aide said.

Rep. Kurt Schrader said informal conversations with House Republicans have already begun. The group has an opportunity to play an important role as the administration and the new majority look to tackle trade agreements and improve the health care bill, the Oregon Democrat said.

“New Dems philosophy is all about empowering the private sector to be the solution,” Schrader said. “We’re about jobs, we’re about business and we’re about growth.”