House Centrists Emerging From the Shadows

Dent is working with Democrats to attempt to get the two sides closer to a deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Dent is working with Democrats to attempt to get the two sides closer to a deal. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:40pm

Late into the second week of the government shutdown, factions of House Democrats and Republicans were planting their flags all over Capitol Hill, holding noisy news conferences and staging elaborate demonstrations.

Drowned out from the warring rhetoric, however, were members of what Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., recently called “the political endangered species of Washington, D.C.”

He was talking about moderates, the members of both parties who have been squeezed from the negotiating tables since the 2010 election cycle, which shifted Republicans farther to the right and wiped out the once-prominent contingent of centrist Democrats.

The result, Costa and others agree, has been the breakdown of bipartisanship — a virtue extolled by Democrats and Republicans alike, but one that is difficult to achieve in such a partisan political environment.

It doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t trying, especially after finding themselves in the midst of government shutdown and looming default.

New Democrat Coalition Chairman Ron Kind of Wisconsin and leading GOP moderate Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania rallied roughly 35 Democrats and Republicans around a proposal to pass a six-month continuing resolution at sequester levels while repealing the medical device tax created by the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition released a statement Wednesday calling on Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to “attack our nation’s larger debt and deficit problems head on.”

But if it’s hard to be in the minority party, it’s even harder to be in the minority of the minority party, said Rep. Collin C. Peterson, who was in office in 1995 when the Blue Dog Coalition was established. The Blue Dogs played a critical role in budget negotiations that year and continued to be a force to be reckoned with inside the Democratic party until the 2010 elections. Now, with just 15 members, they struggle for relevance.

“We now are in such a toxic situation that Republicans cannot be seen talking to or working with Democrats,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “That was not the case back in ’95. Back then, Republicans needed us, because they had enough moderates, and we were more conservative than their moderates.

“Moderates are gone, so they don’t need us,” he said, adding that he had given up going to bipartisan meetings because he no longer saw the point.

“It’s frustrating for everybody,” agreed Costa, who is also a Blue Dog. But unlike Peterson, he hasn’t given up hope that Blue Dogs can make a difference in diluting partisan venom, even if they can’t devise a solution to the current fiscal crisis.

One of the challenges for Democrats and Republicans working together is the suspicion on both sides of the aisle. Pelosi recently slammed the Kind-Dent initiative at a closed-door whip meeting, sources said, arguing that Democrats shouldn’t be freelancing outside the party structure.

Republicans who have started attending these strategy sessions have also been fearful to identify themselves, with one moderate Democratic aide saying that when they received a list to sign on to join the Kind-Dent group, the names of all the other participants were blacked out.

In fact, the only way Democrats and Republicans might have cover to gather across party lines is through the “Problem Solver” initiative unrolled earlier this year by No Labels, a nonthreatening outside organization committed to promoting bipartisanship. There are upward of 40 “problem solvers” from both parties, where conditions of membership include a promise to attend regular meetings and “embrace the right attitude.” The roster ranges from conservative Republican Jack Kingston of Georgia to liberal Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont.

Dent, one of the more than 20 Republicans who has said they would vote for a “clean” continuing resolution, dislikes the term “moderate,” preferring to be called a “pragmatist” or “center-right.” He also disputes the notion that the House Republican Conference has been completely overrun by hard-line conservatives.

The House, though, has become polarized, Dent conceded, which calls for action from more centrist lawmakers.

“The Republicans have majority in the House, but they don’t always have control,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon the House Republican governing majority to form bipartisan coalitions, to pass some important pieces of legislation. That’s a simple fact.”

In recent years, talks to resolve major issues such as a government shutdown and the debt limit have been handled by leadership, whose members have tended to box out moderates. But that hasn’t disheartened those within the rank and file, who see the past few weeks as having renewed their obligation to forge relationships across the aisle.

Dent said he thinks the working group he formed with Kind will continue to meet.

And Blue Dog Leader Kurt Schrader of Oregon said that while the Blue Dogs’ influence has waned by virtue of their slimmer numbers and new status in the minority party, they now have a new role to play: as missionaries for fiscal responsibility and bipartisan compromise, representing the coalition in various working groups.

“Blue Dogs have historically called for comprehensive fiscal solutions and that’s where we’re planting our flag,” Schrader said. “I think the Blue Dogs play heavily in encouraging people to ‘go big.'”