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The Combative Caucus Thins Ranks in House

Some of the most combative House Democrats will be gone from the chamber next year, leaving the Caucus without its more outspoken liberal and fiscally conservative Members.

Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, is just the latest Democratic agitator to announce he will not seek another term. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), another Blue Dog who had a falling out with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), opted against running for re-election, and Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), the go-to voice on a host of liberal issues and a skilled floor manager, will also be gone after this year.

The string of retirements has moderates wondering who the next leadership agitator will be, while liberals await the next Frank-like figure for their causes.

“It’s more than a loss of volume,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I think we’re losing some significant institutional memory, and we’re losing some battle-tested Members that know how to engage the opposition, and so it’s a loss and others will have to step into that gap.”

Moderates are also eager to find their next outspoken voice to joust with the liberals who dominate the Caucus’ membership.

“I think the Caucus needs diversity of ideas, and I think traditionally, that’s been the strength of the Democratic Party,” said Rep. Jim Costa (Calif.), a Blue Dog who is running for re-election.

Costa is running in a reapportioned district currently represented by Cardoza, a one-time confidant of Pelosi’s who was ousted from the leadership table. Cardoza was outspoken in his criticism of her leadership after that episode but has since patched up their relationship. Still, his exit means one less foil.

Another combative Californian, Rep. Jane Harman, left Congress last year to lead the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Harman and Pelosi shared one of the most infamous intraparty rivalries in recent Congressional history, and chamber observers mourned the end of that relationship after Harman stepped down.

Harman was a Blue Dog, and her exit, as well as the retirements of Shuler, Cardoza and Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), have depleted the group’s ranks. That has led to some worry that liberals will become an overwhelming voice in the Caucus.

“When you have someone like Shuler, who has a credible voice in the Caucus and can generally speak in the more rural Democratic areas that we need to win, and we’re losing those voices … it shows weakness from so many different standpoints,” one Democratic chief of staff said.

Shuler called on Pelosi to leave her leadership post after the party lost the majority in 2010, and he staged a token campaign against her for leader last year. The North Carolinian became the Blue Dogs’ top spokesman after predecessors such as Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.) lost in 2010. Boyd was an equally rebellious lawmaker in the Caucus, and in an interview he predicted another Member would fill the void left by Shuler.

“You always find there’s somebody else who will step in,” he said. “It may be in a slightly different way, but there’s always someone who steps up. I know that will happen.”

Boyd pointed to Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) as the next outspoken voice on fiscal issues. Schrader said “you’re starting to see a backlash” from moderates on both sides, pointing to the 100-person “go big” coalition as an example. That group, which is seeking a bipartisan deal on deficit reduction, is led in part by Shuler. Schrader said it’s important for another spokesman to stand up on those issues for the betterment of the Democratic Party.

“There’s an opportunity for us to say we’re truly the party of diverse interests, not just racially, religiously and socially, but economically,” Schrader said.

As diverse as the Democratic Caucus is, so too are the retirements. Frank is the loudest and most colorful voice among liberals in the House, and he is regularly celebrated for his unique style. The Financial Services ranking member was the chamber’s first openly gay lawmaker, and  he co-founded the LGBT Equality Caucus.

Gay rights activists gushed over Frank’s legislative tenure when he announced his retirement in November, and conservatives reacted with equal passion; Americans for Limited Government declared, “Good riddance!” after the 16-term lawmaker opted not to run again.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) is, like Frank, a veteran lawmaker in her 70s who long considered retiring before making her announcement. A former Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairwoman, Woolsey helped create the Out of Iraq Caucus and caused controversy in 2005 by inviting anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan to be her guest at the State of the Union address.

Not all the Democratic losses are due to retirement. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.), a frequent shouter on the House floor, stepped down in June after being embroiled in an Internet sex scandal.

Republicans won control of Weiner’s seat in a special election last year, and Shuler’s district is a top GOP target. Democrats maintain they have a strong class of candidates and the Caucus could see an influx of new Members next year. Between the fresh crop of freshman Members and room for more experienced lawmakers to grow, the Democratic chief of staff said anyone could become the next Shuler or Frank.

“It’ll be interesting to see who has the coalitions and the strength to step up,” the aide said. “But I do think it’s something that’s pretty widely discussed — that people would like to see a change.”

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