When the House Democratic Caucus meets in two weeks to organize itself for the 102nd Congress that begins in January, a fight could develop over whether to allow independent Rep.-elect Bernard Sanders of Vermont to join the party organization.
Sanders, a socialist who won Vermont's at-large congressional seat by running as an independent, has said he plans to join the Democratic caucus. But scattered opposition has developed to allowing Sanders to enjoy the benefits of caucus membership unless he officially becomes a Democrat.
At issue are whether Sanders gets assigned to any standing committees of the House and whether he is allowed to accrue seniority -- and power -- on panels to which he is assigned.
"A couple of senior people, not leadership types, have expressed some reticence about him coming into the caucus," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who chairs the party organization in the House. "There are some conservatives who would find it difficult to vote for Bernie as a member of the caucus."
Among the issues being raised, Hoyer said, is whether it would be fair to allow Sanders to build up seniority on his assigned committees over Democrats elected after him. "Sanders has made it clear he doesn't want to be a Democrat," Hoyer said. "I want to find out what he really thinks about the Democratic Party."
Other House sources said that one senior Democrat who has questioned allowing membership for Sanders is Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley (D-Mass.). Moakley was elected to Congress as an independent in 1972 when he challenged Democratic incumbent and busing opponent Louise Day Hicks. But Moakley, a lifelong Democrat, returned to the party fold immediately after defeating Hicks.
Sanders, in a telephone interview from Vermont, acknowledged that "there are some southern conservatives who are less than enthusiastic" about his joining the caucus. But he said he does not anticipate widespread opposition within Democratic ranks.
Though Sanders said his political agenda is not "radically different" from that of the Democratic Party's liberal wing, he indicated that affiliating with the party's caucus is essentially a convenience to allow him to win and hold committee assignments. "I am an independent and I intend to remain an independent," he said.
House rules are somewhat ambiguous about committee assignments. They state that standing committee appointments are based on "nominations" of party caucuses, with no explicit requirement of caucus membership. But the rules also make committee service "during the course of a Congress" contingent on "continuing membership" in the caucus that nominated a member.