Democrats Searching for Unity

Posted March 4, 2011 at 5:21pm

House Democratic leaders are attempting to do what they were unable to do in the majority: Unite behind a single message.

Several Democratic Members say leadership has sent the signal that the party should be strategic in trying to paint a contrast with Republicans and avoid a scattershot approach to amendments — the only real opportunity that they have in the minority to force floor votes. Top Democrats argue that too many wide-ranging amendments can muddy the party’s message and reduce its chances of taking back the House in 2012.

“We don’t have the opportunity to drive the agenda, so it’s making sure that we contrast what we would do with what Republicans are doing,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) said.

During their four years in the majority, Democratic infighting was common, particularly over major issues such as climate change and health care reform. Prior to and right after their midterm elections defeat, House Democrats were publicly divided over the direction the Caucus should take. Now in the minority, Democrats want to get on the same page.

“It’s not so much don’t do amendments or anything like that. It’s simply trying to make sure whatever we do makes clear the way it should have been done and the way it has been done,” Becerra said.

Some Democratic Members and aides, however, say that as Democrats considered plans to counter Republican initiatives such as the health care repeal and the seven-month stopgap funding bill, leadership pressured rank-and-file lawmakers to rein in the number of amendments that they offer and focus them on jobs, the party’s No. 1 talking point.

“There’s a general consensus that a focused message is a bit more effective than a loud cacophony,” said Rep. Jim Moran (Va.), one of the more than 40 Democrats who offered amendments to Republicans’ long-term continuing resolution when it was on the floor last month. “We Democrats are always tempted to contribute to the cacophony of concern, but I think the leadership is right that we need a consistent, focused message that is basically jobs, jobs, jobs. … That’s the screening process.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) conveyed the idea that amendments should be jobs-focused to Members during Democratic Caucus meetings, Moran said.

One senior Democratic aide said the effort began during the health care repeal debate, when Pelosi’s office offered to help draft amendments, and continued that practice in the runup to the spending debate.

“Her intention was to use that to kill amendments on the CR,” the aide said. While her allies are supportive of the effort, the aide said, there are “a lot of Members who don’t necessarily think getting advice from Pelosi is what they need to be doing to get re-elected.”

Pelosi disputed the notion that her strategy was to prevent Members from offering amendments altogether. “We always reserve the right to offer an amendment if we can have the privilege to offer one,” she said.

Asked whether it was a better strategy to vote against GOP proposals rather than try to change them, Pelosi said, “It depends.”

But Rep. Tim Walz, a moderate, said “some people were irritated” that their Democratic colleagues wanted to offer amendments to the continuing resolution that were outside the bounds of the messaging points that leaders wanted to promote.

“It’s been discussed in Caucus that it dilutes the message, but there’s been no concerted effort to stop them,” the Minnesota Democrat said.

Another moderate Democrat, Rep. Jason Altmire, has several times defected to vote against his party’s motions to recommit, another procedural tool that leaders are trying to use to put Republicans on defense. The Pennsylvania lawmaker said leaders had been “leaning pretty hard on people” to stick together on votes.

“They, I think, have realized that I’m always going to vote the way I think I should vote for my district,” he said.

Still other Members, such as Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), said leaders haven’t instructed them to limit the number of amendments that they offer.

“I have not heard that advice, and they didn’t try and deter me from my amendments last week, or the week before last on the CR,” DeFazio said.

The Oregon Democrat said he plans on continuing to offer amendments.

“When they get around to trying to eliminate the personal mandate, I want to offer an amendment. … I think there are better ways to do that stuff,” he said. “Maybe that won’t fit their messaging, but if I think there is a better way for the country and the people I represent, I would do that.”

Peterson has gone a step further than just trying to offer amendments to Republican legislation by co-sponsoring energy legislation with two Republicans that would freeze the Environmental Protection Agency’s move to rein in industrial power plants and petroleum refiners.

“They know I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” he said, referring to Democratic leaders.

Rep. Robert Andrews, a Pelosi ally and member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, described the leadership effort to coordinate on amendments as more of a suggestion than an airtight policy.

“In some instances we’re better served by limiting those amendments and making them more coherent, but I wouldn’t want to take away the right of any Member to speak his or her mind,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “We prefer coherence, but we don’t discourage creativity.”

Another top Democrat, Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, said leaders conveyed to Members prior to floor debate on the continuing resolution — which GOP leaders brought to the floor under an open process that prompted the introduction of hundreds of amendments — that “it makes sense to have a focused amendment strategy rather than a scattershot approach.”

Going forward, the Maryland Democrat said, leaders would continue to try to zero in on the most effective amendments.

“You want to use them to draw clear contrasts on important issues,” he said. “All these amendments are designed to improve the bill. … The issue is whether you focus your energy on improving it in a particular way.”