By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Half a dozen freshman Democrats took to the House floor one late-October morning to cast their lot with Republicans.
Their actions went unpunished by the Democratic leadership that day, as they have on many other occasions in recent weeks. The symbolic gesture -- casting nay votes on approving the House Journal, essentially the minutes of the previous day -- would have no bearing on the leadership's agenda.
While they overwhelmingly support that agenda, the bloc of freshmen has begun casting votes against such minor procedural motions in an effort, Democratic sources and Republican critics say, to demonstrate their independence from their leadership. The number of votes that the potentially vulnerable newcomers to Capitol Hill cast against House leaders is tallied and watched closely by interest groups and political foes.
Such is the political life of many of the 42 freshman House Democrats, a sizable number of them moderates and conservatives who must straddle the fence between supporting their party's interests and distancing themselves from a mostly liberal leadership as they gear up for their first reelection battle next fall.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of the party's leadership are happy to tolerate the independence on procedural matters. Less than three hours after opposing the late-October journal vote, the same six freshmen sided with Pelosi as Democrats tried, and failed, to override President Bush's veto of a bill to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program by $35 billion over five years, legislation that Pelosi has called her "crown jewel."
"I'm viewed as an independent. I'm viewed as a conservative Democrat," said Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.), the first freshman to regularly oppose his party's leadership on the journal vote.
Like several others, Altmire offered no explanation for voting against all but one of 18 roll calls on the routine measure, adding that he had no "pre-planned" rationale for the votes. "I'm certainly not going to win or lose my reelection based on my journal votes," he said.
But the first reelection campaign in his conservative-leaning western Pennsylvania district could be a tough one. Bush won there by a comfortable nine percentage points in 2004. Districts such as Altmire's fueled the Democratic takeover of the House last year. They are blue-collar in attitude and red-hued in politics, particularly on issues such as abortion and gun rights.
Dubbed the "majority makers" by Pelosi's leadership team, the freshmen have become a major front in the Democrats' battle to sustain and expand their majority next fall.
Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst and author of the Rothenberg Political Report, said Republican hopes for shrinking the Democratic majority begin with what he calls "snapback candidates," who rode into office under the last election cycle's optimal conditions for Democrats and now face their first reelection contests.
Protecting the 42 freshman Democrats, the largest partisan class since 73 Republicans took office in 1994, has been the top priority for key Democratic strategists such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.). The freshmen get special treatment from leaders, including a weekly meeting with Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.). And they receive frequent advice on how to vote from Emanuel and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Seven of the rookies have more than $1 million in cash on hand, and according to Rothenberg, more than half are in safe positions to win reelection. In addition, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee holds a more than 11-to-1 cash advantage over its Republican counterpart, a potential financial backstop for endangered freshmen.
But the political environment has turned toxic in recent months as Democrats have been stymied in their effort to take Congress in their self-proclaimed new direction. Opinion polls show public approval ratings for Congress mired in the 20s, considerably lower than Bush's rating.
In recent months, Democrats in battleground districts have been criticized by Republicans, who have tried to paint them as close to the new House leadership.
"While these Democrats might claim to be independent voices for their districts, the differences between them and Nancy Pelosi are purely aesthetic," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. This year, the GOP committee launched a Web site to track the percentage of votes that 28 of the freshmen cast with Pelosi, whom Republicans say will be a polarizing figure in conservative districts next fall.
That is why procedural votes are important to freshmen, according to Democratic aides. House Republicans this year turned to a procedure known as a "motion to recommit," offering what is typically a routine method of sending bills back to committee as politically charged amendments. With a wink and a nod from Emanuel and Hoyer, some endangered freshmen frequently vote with Republicans on tricky GOP motions to keep their votes from being used against them in 30-second campaign sound bites.
Some freshman Democrats have taken the idea of voting against their party leadership on procedural votes one step further, opposing mundane matters such as the journal vote.
Altmire has sided with the opposition in 17 of 18 journal roll calls this year. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) has cast 15 votes with the GOP. In the spring, only a few freshmen voted against the journal, but one recent vote drew 13 freshmen in opposition, and in another, 11 voted nay. Now a half-dozen or more regularly oppose whenever a roll call is held.
Democratic leaders acknowledge that they have encouraged the freshmen to sometimes vote with Republicans on politically difficult issues, but deny that they have had any input on the Congressional Record votes.
"We've given them very simple advice: Make sure you vote your district," Van Hollen said.
As a result, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), for example, has one of the lowest party-unity voting scores -- less than 84 percent -- of any House Democrat, according to washingtonpost.com's congressional database. The average House Democrat has voted with the majority on 92.5 percent of all votes.
"They're trying to create separation. Our guys did it in '95 and '96," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a member of the GOP class of 1994.
At the time, freshman Republicans saw congressional popularity plummet during a budget fight that led to a series of federal government shutdowns. Fearful of being tied closely to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), many freshmen also began voting no on the journal in a similar effort to distance themselves.
Congressional Quarterly now conducts multiple voting studies and often does not count procedural votes. To get the most politically accurate result, the NRCC monitors only how often the freshmen vote with Pelosi, who as speaker usually votes only on the most important issues. Washingtonpost.com's party unity score is based on all votes.
Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), who has opposed more than half the journal votes, called his opposition "protest votes against little things I heard during the day" before.
"I hope the people back home are monitoring all my votes," he said.
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.