House Moderates Walk a Tightrope to Shape Legislation, Win Elections
By Gebe Martinez
First installment of an occasional series on politically moderate Democrats and Republicans and their campaigns for House seats in the November election.
By several accounts, it was not a pretty sight.
Behind the closed doors of the House Republican Conference one Wednesday last April, the loyalty of several moderates was being questioned. They were being chewed out for signing or preparing to add their names to a Democratic petition to force a floor debate on campaign finance reform legislation opposed by most Republicans.
Others petition signers were Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., who still gets flak back home for not being tough enough in the House ethics investigation she headed against Gingrich in 1997; and Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, who owes his chairmanship of the House Banking Committee to Gingrich.
"Newt is telling them to get the hell off that petition," said one Texas Republican as he emerged from the meeting.
But the feisty moderates like so many other times this session held their ground and agreed to remove their names only in exchange for Gingrich's promise to hold an "honest" debate on the reform legislation.
As a result, the bill most despised by GOP leaders won House approval in July. It was a sign of the growing clout of Republican moderates, and conversely, Gingrich's biggest policy defeat with members of his own party.
And now, acting out of belief that their moderating influence is the key to increasing the Republican majority in the House, GOP middle-of-the- roaders who call themselves the "Tuesday Group" are backing a stable of like-minded candidates in the November general elections.
Similarly, the centrist bloc of the Democratic Party, which also has disagreed with its own House leadership, is working to elect a group of candidates who share President Clinton's economic, education and pro-growth initiatives, in hopes of overcoming the GOP's 11-seat margin in the House.
This bloc consists of two separate organizations that have overlapping membership: the 41-member New Democrats, and the 24-member "Blue Dogs," also known as "The Coalition," which is the most conservative of the two groups. Old-fashioned liberalism is what caused them to lose control of Congress in the 1994 elections, they believe.
Even if the control of the House remains in Republican hands and the number of seats held by each party is not altered significantly, a few changes still could alter policy, said Michael J. Malbin, a political scientist at State University of New York in Albany.
"Small changes can make big differences," Malbin said. Since no philosophical faction has a majority in the House, growth in any one particular group can build momentum for a cause, he added.
The wild card in this fall's political play is the criminal investigation of Clinton's personal relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and the specter of an impeachment inquiry by the House.
Even before Clinton acknowledged his liaison with Lewinsky, Democrats faced long odds of picking up the 11 seats needed to gain control of the House.
Now, as the House prepares to receive a report from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr on possible impeachment offenses by Clinton, Democrats are fighting off assumptions that the political storm whipping around the White House has blown away their chances to pick up even a few congressional districts.
Whether the scandal will affect individual "local" congressional races remains to be seen. Freshman moderate Rep. Bobby Etheridge, D-N.C., is the only candidate, so far, to be targeted on the Clinton issue in a television ad by GOP opponent Dan Page. Another Republican congressional candidate, Gil Aust, who is challenging Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., has an ad calling for Clinton's resignation.
Some moderate Democrats have distanced themselves from Clinton even though they are running in the philosophical center defined by Clinton in his 1992 presidential election. Those candidates include Baron Hill, who is seen as the likely winner of the Democratic seat being vacated by Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.; Joe Hoeffel, who is in a rematch with Rep. Jon Fox, R-Pa.; and Gail Reicken, who is challenging Rep. John N. Hostettler, R-Ind.
Though one prominent House Democrat concedes Democrats "are in a little bit of a difficult situation," he said the Lewinsky matter should not influence local House races.
"I see very little repercussions on congressional Democrats resulting from the president's personal problems," said Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., co-chairman of the New Democrat Coalition that was founded on Clinton's centrist policies. "Obviously, no one condones the type of behavior the president engaged in. At the same time I think most Democrats are very supportive of his policy agenda and the leadership he provides on those policies."
"What we also have recognized is that the president is the spokesman of the Democratic Party," Dooley said of the moderates' backing of Clinton's plans for economic growth and education.
Republicans, meanwhile, are weighing how powerfully to pack their punches against Clinton, given voters' preference that the issue just die down. Also on the political radar screen are several national surveys that show a razor-thin margin of voters preferring a "generic" Democratic representative in Congress over a Republican.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., a Tuesday Group leader, predicts the size of his caucus will increase because moderates are winning primary fights and "Clinton's troubles [will] mount" before the November election. How extensively will the Clinton issue play for Republicans? "I don't know yet," Upton responds. "I am one that has called for him to step down."
So with a watchful eye on the White House, congressional campaign strategists in both parties are hunkering down on those federal contests in marginal or open seat districts where many of the candidates are cloaked in moderation.
A big challenge for Democrats will be voter turnout, especially if the Clinton controversy discourages their supporters from heading to the polls.
Usually, non-presidential federal elections draw out each party's "base supporters." Already, seasoned political consultants have estimated that perhaps less than 37 percent of eligible voters will cast ballots, the lowest in modern history, because they are generally satisfied with the economy.
The mission of Dooley and the New Democrats is to downplay the liberalism of their own House leaders and highlight the GOP's conservative legislative agenda. "The emergence of the religious right and its increased influence within the Republican Party is actually driving more voters to look for alternatives, and the New Democrat Coalition is often very accessible to voters," Dooley maintained.
Fighting that perception is precisely what moderate Republicans are trying to do to protect their party's majority in Congress.
"The center of the electorate is both the problem and the opportunity for the Republican Party," suggested a national survey conducted this summer for the moderate Republican Leadership Council. While "ticket-splitters" and independents slightly favor the Democratic candidate, the GOP can win the center by focusing on economic and education policies, not its moral issues agenda, according to the survey conducted by Kieran Mahoney and Associates.
Republicans, in particular, are walking a philosophical tightrope taking conservative issues such as anti-gay and anti-abortion rights to the House floor summer and fall, yet trying to sound a note of moderation that will draw "swing voters" who turn out on Election Day.
Upton, among other moderates, sees an election-year advantage in siding with Democrats against some conservative initiatives, such as attempts by GOP conservatives to pay for drastic tax cuts by eliminating the Department of Energy or cutting heating and cooling subsidies for the poor, for example.
"I see voters across the country wanting to have the best minds of both parties come together instead of duking it out," he said.
To this end, GOP moderates have refused to become marginalized by their small numbers. They know that only 11 GOP lawmakers can turn the heads of their leaders by threatening to vote with Democrats and cause a bill's defeat unless they get bargaining power on major legislation.
Though the ploy has been used by conservatives on abortion issues, for example, it is the 45-plus moderate faction that seems to use it with more ease even though conservatives outnumber them by a 5-to-1 margin.
"You bargain with the moderates to do enough to keep them satisfied. They are not the focal point, but they have to be bargained with," thus giving them strength, observed State University of New York's Malbin.
Republicans were once united behind their 1994 Contract with America, but the caucus began to splinter after losing the public relations battle with the White House during the government shutdowns in the winter of 1995. Then came the loss of eight Republican seats in the 1996 election, and suddenly, House Republicans were cutting balanced budget deals with the White House that combined tax cuts with spending increases.
Chagrined, maverick conservatives tried to topple Gingrich last summer. But they failed, largely because moderates helped Gingrich move both the philosophical debate and attempted power grab back to the center.
Even as Republican leaders tilted to the right earlier this year to satisfy conservative religious interests across the country, moderates who gained a permanent spot at the leadership table were busy on several fronts trying to keep the party's legislative ship balanced:
Because of the GOP centrists, the Republican House has softened its anti-environmental image, and now, no legislation that touches on environmental issues moves without the support of moderate Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y. One example was the 1997 bill governing livestock grazing on public lands [H.R. 2493], a measure sought by ranching interests that was blocked by Boehlert until he could make it "environment neutral" and water down provisions that would encourage overgrazing.
The campaign finance reform bill has been their clearest victory, but not without the occasional "payback" by conservatives.
In a "unity" letter penned by Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Md. and signed by dozens of conservatives, the GOP leadership was urged to consider the wayward action of some members when assigning committee chairmanships or other key posts. All members, especially chairmen and other ranking members, should "refrain" from signing discharge petitions or voting against the leadership on procedural questions, the letter implored.
Moderates responded in a letter headed by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.: "The platform for political punishment rests on the pillars of dogma, ignorance and arrogance."
This fall, moderates will weigh in during the expected debate over tax cuts that has deeply divided the Republican Party in both the House and Senate. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, and other conservatives are pushing for a $100 billion tax cut over five years, while Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M. has guided a $30 billion tax cut through the Senate.
The tax cut will likely fall somewhere in middle, but debate will center on spending cuts and whether any, or how much, of the projected 10-year, $1.6 trillion budget surplus should be used.
"Must of us certainly are going to be in support of tax cuts, be we want a sizable chunk to be applied to reducing the [$5.5 trillion national] debt," Upton maintained.
President Clinton has called for the budget surplus to be set aside until a long-term solution is found for the Social Security Trust Fund a message of prudent budgeting that moderate and conservative Democrats plan to reiterate during budget and tax negotiations and on the campaign stump.
Indeed, the Democratic moderates and conservatives have drawn much of their current political and negotiating clout from the last year's historic balanced-budget agreement [P.L. 105-33], on which they played a critical role.
"When Clinton got behind the balanced budget in 1997, there was not, out of the box, a roar of support by Democrats on that," recalls Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the New Democrat Network, which espouses Clinton's centrist, fiscal conservative policies. But with moderates pushing the initiative, "we were able to get 75 percent of the caucus behind that."
On another divisive issue for the party trade centrist Democrats were instrumental in getting more than half of the caucus to support Most Favored Nation status for China a move opposed by Democratic Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and other liberal Democrats because of China's human rights violations.
Last November, only 42 Democrats most of them moderates agreed to support Clinton's request for "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, which would give the administration the power to seek treaties without congressional amendments.
The issue was opposed by the Democratic Party's largest "soft money" contributor labor unions and also by environmentalists. House Republicans, unwilling to carry the political weight of legislation without more Democratic support, pulled the bill [H.R. 2621] from the House floor at the last-minute.
In December, Gephardt carried the fight further during a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He criticized those who call themselves "New Democrats," and who "market a political strategy masquerading as policy," that is absent the "core" values of the Democratic Party.
Just as Republican moderates responded to criticism from conservatives in their party, so did the New Democrats in a letter to Gephardt: "To suggest that those who do not agree with you are without principle and are motivated solely by political calculation is beneath your role as leader and contributes little to political debate within our party."
The current House Democratic leadership team is without a moderate voice. But in a sign of their emerging influence, Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, who is in a tough re-election fight back home, and Dooley are planning to challenge liberals for the top two conference spots next January.
But before then, Democrats may have another internal conflict. Gingrich has threatened to resurrect the "fast-track" vote before the November elections, as part of a political strategy to make life difficult for Democrats in swing districts who may be forced to choose between labor unions and jobs and trade.
But some Democrats and Republicans predict the vote will not occur, because some Republicans face the same conflict.
One of them is Congressman Fox of Pennsylvania, who had the closest election margin in 1996 with only 84 votes, and faces a rematch with his Democratic opponent, Hoeffel.
As he left the GOP conference where the decision was made to proceed with the "fast-track" vote, Fox complained: "I am concerned about how this becomes a priority when we have other priorities such as health care and aid for families to afford college educations."
"This would not be on my priority list," the GOP moderate said.
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service