Congressional Democrats Are Left Frustrated in Advance of 2006

As this session of Congress winds down, it’s worth examining one largely unreported drama — the outcome of which could determine how House Democrats fare in next year’s elections.

The question is: Will House Democrats remain as united in opposition to the Republican agenda as they were in October and November, when even the most conservative Democrats were voting in lockstep with hyper-liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Or will moderate Democrats provide House GOP leaders with enough votes to bypass their insurgent moderate-Republican wing and advance a politically attractive, but modest, conservative policy agenda?

Two mid-December votes shed light on this important question.

First, on December 14, the House renewed the 16 expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, the law that gives law enforcement authorities important investigative tools with which to pursue suspected terrorists. The very thought of renewing the Patriot Act, of course, alarms civil libertarians and the liberal base of the Democratic Party. What may come as a surprise, however, is that more than 20% of House Democrats (44 in all) supported the extensions, and that the House Democratic leadership team split right down the middle on this decisive vote.

While Pelosi remained true to her liberal San Francisco roots and led the opposition to the Patriot Act, her top lieutenant, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), sheepishly supported it. Hoyer issued a lukewarm statement explaining his vote. Though he argued hat the legislation “should have done more to protect fundamental civil liberties,” Hoyer ultimately supported the President, explaining: “I believe the USA Patriot Act helps provide our government with some of the tools necessary to try to prevent future attacks on our nation.”

The ongoing tension between the two leading House Democrats — Hoyer and Pelosi were also on different sides of the intra-Democratic debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq — is the most underreported story in Washington.

In contrast, House Republicans presented a more united front, with a mere 8% (a total of 18) voting against the measure.

The second noteworthy development came two days later, when the House approved a hotly debated measure to strengthen border security and increase enforcement of immigration laws. To read leading press accounts, one would think that immigration divides only Republicans.

“The bill,” wrote Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman, “was designed to demonstrate to voters a new resolve on border security before the House adjourns for the year.” But, Weisman argued, “It also revealed deep divisions in the Republican Party” by pitting lawmakers who favor the creation of a guest-worker program against their colleagues who remain “resolutely opposed to any plan that would keep undocumented workers flowing into the country.” (Emphasis added.) Weisman quoted exclusively from warring factions of House Republicans and went on to explain the broader political dilemma immigration policy poses to the GOP.

Common Thread

No quarrel with this part of his analysis: Debates over immigration policy have frayed the emotions of Hill Republicans for decades. But Weisman didn’t mention that immigration policy divides the Democrats as well. While only 17 Republicans voted against the border security measure, 36 Democrats crossed the aisle. The National Council of La Raza, a liberal Hispanic advocacy group, took the unusual step of threatening political retribution against rebellious Democrats as well as Republicans.

Not only did the border security bill pit congressional Democrats against liberal advocacy groups like La Raza, it created yet another schism among House Democrats. Members of the all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus who opposed the measure were aghast to learn that Hoyer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, advised their most politically vulnerable colleagues to support the measure. “Here is a seminal issue for their caucus,” one Democratic House aide noted, “and [the Democratic] leadership was whipping against it. They were livid.”

There is a common thread to the issues that divide congressional Democrats: Iraq, the renewal of the Patriot Act, and efforts to secure the border require members of Congress to take a clear stand on how assertive they want the federal government to be in prosecuting the War on Terror. Not only is this the issue on which Republicans enjoy their greatest advantage over Democrats, but voters continue to rank the War on Terror as the most important issue facing America.

This must add to the quiet, and largely unreported, sense of frustration Hill Democrats feel as this session of Congress draws to a close.