House Liberals Find Footing

Posted October 4, 2011 at 6:26pm

After months of a rough adjustment to their minority status, House Democrats say they are harmonizing around a jobs message and will look to hit Republicans at every turn.

Members and aides say the Caucus got a major morale boost when it held together late last month in helping to defeat a GOP-drafted continuing resolution that offset disaster aid spending, with the myriad factions, from the Congressional Black Caucus to Blue Dogs, voting against the measure.

The majority of the Caucus voted for a separate short-term CR agreement that easily passed on the floor Tuesday. In a statement, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) used the occasion to trumpet her party for defeating the earlier version that would have offset disaster aid by cutting into a popular program designed to spur development of more fuel-efficient automotives.

“From the start, Democrats insisted that we protect good-paying American jobs while meeting our obligations to families, small business owners and communities affected by recent natural disasters,” said Pelosi, who voted for Tuesday’s measure. “Today, we upheld that pledge.”

Rep. Robert Andrews (N.J.), a top Pelosi lieutenant, said last month’s CR vote “has given us a renewed sense of purpose.” He also said, “In a very disciplined and focused way, we are telling whoever will listen that we think a jobs plan like the president’s ought to be passed, and we intend in every forum we can to drive home a point that Republicans are acting irresponsibly with not moving forward.”

Pelosi spent part of Tuesday leading a Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meeting on jobs, while across town scores of liberal activists gathered for the Take Back the American Dream Conference.

In a session about tax reform titled “Paying for the American Dream,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Wall Street traders crooks, chided Republicans for attempting to cut Social Security and Medicare and lauded President Barack Obama’s policy priorities, all to wild applause.

“We’ll be damned if we’re going to see a handful of robber barons control the future of this country,” Sanders said. “Let’s be blunt and let’s speak to the urgency of the moment, not just the statistics. The reality is the middle class is collapsing.”

Other sessions focused on social issues, the environment and simply building a movement. Though there is still work to be done, activist and organizer Heather Booth said she sees a grass-roots coming together that could gain momentum.

“Sometimes in a moment, there is a crystallization of people’s concerns and hopes and frustrations that reach a pitch,” Booth said in an interview. “We think the tide is turning and that you can see the embers of a fire that reflects the passion people have.”

It wasn’t always like this for House Democrats, who have struggled this year to find their footing in the minority and frequently felt undercut by their Senate counterparts and the Obama administration. They did see an upswing when Rep. Kathy Hochul won a special election in upstate New York after she made opposition to the House Republicans’ budget resolution and its proposed cuts to Medicare a centerpiece of her campaign. Such celebrations were short-lived, however, as the debt ceiling talks and a scandal involving then-Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) overtook the Capitol.

Aides say that Caucus meetings were better attended after last month’s CR defeat and that ranking members are pursuing more aggressive strategies, but the party still has its struggles. Longtime Rep. Jerry Costello (Ill.) announced his retirement Tuesday, giving Republicans new ammo to charge that Democrats do not have a winning message for their incumbents next year.

And while House Democrats were hailing Obama’s jobs plan Tuesday, Senate Republicans sought to capitalize on it in their own chamber by forcing a vote that almost certainly would not have won the necessary 60 votes.

House Democrats seemed to shake it off.

“We’re hardly ever unified behind a single message,” a Democratic aide observed. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but we’ll ride it out as long as we can.”

Today, that means going after an anti-regulation bill that is part of the GOP’s fall jobs plan. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) previously criticized Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) for advancing a pair of bills aimed at the Environmental Protection Agency that he said would cost $2 million and are not offset. Although it’s a relatively small sum, Waxman, ranking member on Energy and Commerce, asserts the cost violates the Republicans’ policy of making sure that new legislation is paid for.

“They said that they would pay for any kind of discretionary authorization spending, and now they’re refusing to do it,” Waxman said Tuesday. “It just showed a little bit of a double standard.”

A House GOP aide argued: “No new spending is authorized by the legislation, so no offset is necessary.”

While Waxman said he did not have other examples to wave in front of Republicans, his spokeswoman Karen Lightfoot said, “We plan to continue to press the Republicans on their cut/go policy — this week and beyond.”