November fears paralyzing House Democrats on key issues

McClatchy NewspapersJune 25, 2010 

WASHINGTON — It's become a familiar Tuesday ritual: Another member of Congress loses his bid for re-nomination, and incumbents in Washington shudder — and get more timid about taking politically risky votes on economic matters.

That's making it hard for the increasingly fractured House of Representatives Democratic caucus, which has an overwhelming majority, to complete even the most routine matters.

That then calls into question how soon, if at all, lawmakers can approve more funding for the war in Afghanistan and for thousands who've lost jobless benefits lately, let alone tackle the nation's ballooning debt.

Last week, the political victim was Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, who fell hard as opponent Trey Gowdy got 71 percent of the vote. Inglis, a six-term veteran, was the third House member to lose a bid for re-nomination this year; two senators also have been defeated.

That's an unusually high toll, with more primaries to come, and legislative survivors are hearing a clear message.

"The American people are not happy with incumbents across the board, and the election could come down to how we individualize these races," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut.

That means voting one's district as never before, and in a House in which Democrats control 255 of the 435 seats and represent a wide variety of districts, it's hard to find common ground on Capitol Hill.

The resulting paralysis sends the kind of message that no incumbent wants, though.

"It gets to competence and whether you can govern," said Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.

The most outstanding symbol of the gridlock is the emergency spending legislation, which languishes, even though funding for hundreds of thousands of jobless workers' benefits expired earlier this month.

House Democratic leaders originally proposed a $200 billion plan. Most of the 54-member Blue Dog — or moderate Democratic — coalition balked, however, concerned about increased budget deficits. The plan was scaled back dramatically, and it finally passed last month, but 34 Democrats voted no.

The Senate came up with a further scaled-down version, but it's died largely because Republicans, joined by moderate Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, refused to cut off debate on it. That scaled-back measure never made it to the House.

If it had, chances are that liberals would have been fine with the deficit spending, saying the economy still needs a jolt, but the moderates, who tend to represent the most politically vulnerable areas, would cite a crying need for fiscal discipline.

"What you have here is that everyone is reflecting the view of their own district," said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who's a Blue Dog. "And the more conservative among us see spending fatigue."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., tried to placate the centrists Tuesday by pledging to consider dramatic long-term steps such as raising the Social Security retirement age and extending the Bush administration's middle-class tax cuts only temporarily, not permanently as the White House long has urged.

So far, liberals are reacting icily to the idea, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., chose her words about it carefully, saying Hoyer "made a very important statement about putting everything on the table."

In the meantime, Republicans have gained political traction by hammering away at Democrats as being too eager to spend. GOP lawmakers gleefully point out that for the first time since the 1974 budget law went into effect, House leaders had no plans to vote on a budget outline, which usually includes the majority party's five-year plan for reducing deficits.

Instead, Democratic leaders said they'd push for a vote on a one-year plan that would spend less than President Barack Obama proposed, but liberals had other thoughts: trimming defense costs. Democrats are divided over that, too, however.

The Senate passed a $58.8 billion bill last month to pay for the Afghan war as well as other emergencies, but House Democratic budget writers wanted to add $23 billion to help states pay education costs. Some also want the chance to cast a vote that expresses lawmakers' views on the war.

"We have to stop to evaluate — to re-evaluate — what's happening in Afghanistan," said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Barbara Lee, D-Calif.

The schism is hardly new. Earlier this year, 60 House Democrats voted for a resolution calling on Obama to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Democratic leaders sense another potentially ugly dispute and are proceeding carefully. Though Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this week that the war funding was needed by July 4 or else "we will have to start doing stupid things," Larson wouldn't commit to that goal.

"There's great skepticism in the caucus about the war," he said, particularly since Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command in Afghanistan this week.

The latest twist showed that nothing is easy in this climate, Larson said.

"Every issue has become difficult," he said, "because people are looking at its impact on their district."

(William Douglas contributed to this article.)

ON THE WEB:

Rep. Hoyer's speech

Congressional Budget Office analysis of President Barack Obama's 2011 budget

House Democrats' war spending plan

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