In the hierarchy of the House, moderate Democrats — a minority in a party already deep in the minority — should be totally powerless.
But a group of pro-business Democrats, who allied with President Barack Obama and Republicans to pass landmark trade legislation, are angling to cut more deals with the GOP and White House as a way to assert themselves — and force the Democratic Caucus to the center.
Led by Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, the New Democrat Coalition of some 50 members sees opportunities this fall on taxes, trade, Medicare and government spending. Those are all areas where House Republicans have struggled to fashion 218-vote majorities from within their own party, with a cadre of restive conservatives often rejecting leadership’s compromises with Senate Democrats and Obama.
That leaves an opening for swing moderates to get legislation across the finish line.
“We need to reconstitute the center of American politics again, on both sides. That is a crucial role we have to play, especially when it comes to the economic message and what resonates in those competitive districts,” Kind said in a recent interview.
Moderates are tired of being overshadowed in a party where liberals have long dominated the agenda, even as Democrats slipped further into the House minority after the 2014 midterm elections. They’ve accused the White House and party leaders of focusing too much on niche economic issues like the minimum wage and pay equity — policies, moderates argue, that turn off suburban voters Democrats need if they want to take back the House. And top Democratic leaders have released them to break with the party’s liberal base, in many cases an acknowledgement that many moderates come from tightly contested districts.
Early returns have been positive.
When Obama needed support from his own party to pass landmark trade legislation, he turned to the New Democrat Coalition. The group mustered just enough votes — 28 in total — to clear fast-track trade authority through Congress, despite opposition from the party’s left, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. It was the latest — and most controversial — instance of the group flexing its muscles.
Aligning with Republicans against working families
And now moderates are staking a claim to other economic polices normally dominated by Republicans. Reps. John Delaney of Maryland and Scott Peters of California introduced a “dynamic scoring” bill — an issue normally favored by Republicans — that would encourage budget scorekeepers to score tax cuts favorably to reevaluate how Congress spends money on infrastructure, research and education. Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes is one of the most outspoken advocates for reforming the Dodd-Frank financial regulations bill, which he supports, and Delaney has worked to find common ground on foreign tax issues with both parties.
“There is a real opportunity to work with the administration and to work with the majority to try and get [our issues] done,” said California Rep. Ami Bera, a member of the group. “There is an appetite.”
The push hasn’t been always been popular with progressives in the caucus. Liberal Massachusetts Rep. Mike Capuano lashed out during a closed-door caucus meeting in January, telling moderate lawmakers who supported rolling back Dodd-Frank regulations that they “might as well be a Republican.” And unions — usually staunch allies of Democrats — pledged to pull fundraising and support from members of the coalition who supported Obama on trade.
But Kind said regular meetings with Pelosi and the clout that came with ushering Obama’s trade package through Congress have given the New Democrats a more assertive voice within the caucus. And the Wisconsin Democrat offered praise for Pelosi, who shocked both pro- and anti-trade advocates when she voted against fast track.
Kind said Pelosi could have blocked the trade measure if she’d come out hard against it early. Instead, she gave the pro-trade wing of the caucus “just enough room” to get the votes needed, Kind said.
“We’re trying to develop an economic message that we felt was lacking in the last election. We want more of an open-opportunity message that is less about grievances and more about inclusiveness,” Kind added. “There is a little bit of a tug-of-war going on.”
Aligning with Paul Ryan
Kind, a member of the influential Ways and Means Committee, has met with the panel’s chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to discuss tax reform. Lawmakers in the coalition repeatedly stressed that reevaluating how the U.S. taxes corporate profits from overseas operations could be an area of compromise between the moderate Democrats and Republicans.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said the coalition — which announced Wednesday it had reached $1 million in fundraising through its PAC at the quickest rate ever — is also refocusing on business groups that have traditionally been Republican allies. He said Democrats have an opportunity to reach new voters and donors with the congressional fight over the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank and immigration.
Congressional Republicans broadly rejected the bank as an example of “crony capitalism,” despite its reauthorization being a top commitment for business.
“We are more expansive in our economic policy and our economic message than many in the Democratic Party,” Connolly said. “We want to reach out to a pro-business community that we believe is really receptive to a Democratic message if we reach out to them and include them.”
The New Democrats are also working to strengthen relationships with their moderate GOP counterparts. Last month, Kind hosted a lunch between moderate Democrats and the Tuesday Group — a longstanding GOP group comprised of center-right lawmakers. That July 22 meeting was meant, Kind said, as a forum to look for “overlap and common ground.”
Still, challenges remain for the New Democrats, as passing any legislation when in the minority is always difficult — and the New Democrats are far from being in the majority in the Democratic Party, even though their numbers are growing. Kind said another six lawmakers have applied for membership since the start of the year.
It helps that the caucus is made up of younger members — many of whom are seen as the future of the Democratic Caucus. Lawmakers like Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, Tony Cardenas of California, Scott Peters of California, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Joaquin Castro of Texas and André Carson of Indiana have burnished reputations as pragmatic pols.
Connolly said the new, more aggressive tone was a calculated shift after moderates in the party felt they had been pushed out from messaging and strategy decisions. He said the coalition met early in the year to discuss how to push forward key issues like trade — conversations that continued even after fast track passed the House in anticipation of the language for the Trans-Pacific Partnership coming out later this fall.
“It has not been that frequent that we’ve been as assertive as we have in the past few months,” the Virginia Democrat said. “It’s a new factor. We’re going to insist that our voice is going to be heard and respected.”