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New Democrats Feel Their Time Is Coming

With a tax reform debate looming and House seats to compete for in suburban districts throughout the country, members of the New Democrat Coalition say their stock is rising.

Like the once-mighty Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrats have had a diminished role in the minority, with a smaller membership and few legislative opportunities to flex their influence on stock issues such as trade and innovation. But unlike the predominantly rural and Southern Blue Dog membership, New Democrats from urban and suburban districts contend that their numbers will only increase after the 2012 elections.

“Many of the seats that we’re going to be competitive in and we’re going to win back, I think, are seats that appeal to the New Dem Coalition’s message,” Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the group, said in a recent interview. “And I have no doubt many of those folks will seek to become New Dems.”

A senior Democratic aide conceded that “the fiscally moderate, pro-choice, pro-gay-rights voters, those are the districts we’re going to be winning back before we win back the rural Blue Dog districts.”

But, the aide cautioned, “If we do take back the House, I think it’s important to remember they need to work well together to be effective.”

There have been moments of coordination this year, most recently relating to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction. Leaders from both camps rallied several dozen of their Democratic colleagues to sign on to a bipartisan letter challenging the panel to negotiate a sweeping agreement. Despite the super committee’s failure to agree on any plan last week, many observers took note of the diverse factions of House Members coming together to push for fiscal reform.

New Democrats have also forged ahead on their own, recently unveiling a sweeping tax proposal that Democratic lobbyists say was well-received downtown. Crowley, who sits on the Way and Means Committee, predicted the coalition would play an influential role in tax reform next year. While some Democratic aides wonder whether House Republicans will take on the issue in 2012, others note that the GOP is under pressure to extend the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush and extended under President Barack Obama. New Democrats don’t support extending cuts for the top tax brackets, but they could be wooed with a broader package that includes lowering marginal corporate rates.

One Democratic observer with ties to the coalition said the members could pull from the playbook they used during the debate over the Dodd-Frank financial package to build their influence on taxes. During that 2010 debate, New Democrats temporarily blocked the bill from hitting the floor until leadership agreed to include, among other things, language giving federal regulators greater power to override state consumer protection laws.

“They were at their finest because they had a strong leader willing to hold the votes on an issue that the New Dems were incredibly knowledgeable on,” the Democratic observer said, suggesting that tax reform could be their encore. “It was the perfect storm of all these pieces coming together. That doesn’t happen all the time.”

The move irked liberal Democrats, proving the moderate faction can be at odds with the larger Caucus. If Democrats win back the majority next year or even pick up a significant number of seats, the New Democrats could again find themselves pulling right while their liberal colleagues tack left. Asked whether the arrival of the populist Occupy Wall Street movement might sharpen the divisions between liberal and moderate Democrats, or at least require New Democrats to temper their pro-business message, one aide said no.

“They’re not in Loudoun County in Virginia, they’re not in Bucks County in Pennsylvania, and they’re not in Lake County in Illinois,” the aide said of the protesters. “They’re not where independent voters are. They’re in downtown Chicago and McPherson Square.”

The New Democrats had as many as 69 members in 2009 right before Crowley became chairman, but that number has dwindled to 42. By comparison, the Blue Dogs boasted a membership of more than 50 in 2009 and saw that number cut down to its current 25 in the wake of the 2010 elections.

As the party looks to regain those seats, they have a host of moderates to consult in the leadership ranks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Crowley serves as the DCCC’s chairman of finance, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) leads DCCC efforts on recruitment and candidate services. Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), widely considered a rising star in the coalition, leads the DCCC’s Frontline operation, while Rep. Jared Polis (Colo.) is chairman of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program.

Former Reps. Bill Foster (Ill.) and Dan Maffei (N.Y.), who were New Democrats during their stints in Congress, are running again in 2012. Another former New Democrat who might consider another run for the House is former Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), who also lost last year in the Republican wave.

During the DCCC’s fly-in of more than 100 candidates last month, aides said several potential lawmakers expressed interest in winning an endorsement from the New Democrats. The group’s political action committee has yet to get involved in races, but candidates such as Brad Schneider in Illinois and Jamie Wall in Wisconsin are said to fit the group’s pro-business mold.

“These are swing districts, moderate districts, but everywhere it’s about finding the right candidate,” Schwartz said. “And we think many of them will be New Dems.”

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