Panel gauges likely post-election legislation

Should Democrats retake control of the House, as many now predict, one result, many others suggest, will be legislative gridlock.

But former House leaders, who are now DLA Piper lobbyists and consultants, said yesterday in a panel discussion that both parties, after bashing each other for months, may feel new pressures after Nov. 7 to work together in response to voter frustrations over a perceived lack of legislative accomplishment in recent years.

That could mean deals on immigration reform, energy policy or healthcare, the lobbyists said.

Richard Gephardt, the last Democratic member to be House majority leader, expressed cautious optimism about Democrats’ chances on Election Day.

But the Missouri Democrat also noted several advantages Republicans have that Democrats did not in 1994 when the GOP ended 40 years of Democratic House rule. These included fewer competitive districts due to reapportionment and the fact that Republicans knew they are in trouble and have had time to try to respond. In 1994, few Democrats thought Republicans would win enough seats to take the majority.

Should Democrats win, Gephardt indicated, there could be fewer policy changes than many expect. That is partly because Democrats will want to go into 2008 with some legislative wins under their belt, which means they will have to work with Republicans, he said.

Voters will ask: “Did they get anything done that would mean something to me in my daily life?” Gephardt said.

He predicted Democrats would focus particular attention on healthcare and on an energy policy designed to wean the country off foreign oil and toward greater development of homegrown biofuels.

James Blanchard, a former Democratic governor of Michigan who now is the chairman of DLA Piper’s government affairs practice, said Democrats will “want to start with a spirit of bipartisanship” to accomplish goals on pension and healthcare reforms.

Blanchard predicted Democrats would win 25 seats on Nov. 7, 10 more than they need to reclaim the majority.

Joining Gephardt and Blanchard on the panel yesterday were Richard Armey (R-Texas), another former House majority leader; Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), a former vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference; and political analyst Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report.

The group was doing publicly what lobbyists have done for weeks in private conversations with clients: handicapping the midterm election and predicting what it would mean for legislation next session. Patton Boggs, the lobbying firm, is sponsoring a similar session today.

After allowing that former members can be less partisan than they were in Congress, Armey agreed with Gephardt that voters are frustrated that “Congress hasn’t done anything.”

One issue that could benefit from a Democratic takeover is immigration, Armey said. Democrats may be able to “break the impasse” over the issue and pass a bill more closely aligned to what President Bush has backed. That is, a measure that includes a guest worker program.

But if Republicans maintain their majority, as Armey still believes they will, the party also would reassess its position on the issue, he added. Armey’s grassroots group FreedomWorks backs comprehensive immigration reform.

Armey said the Republican-led Congress has spent too much time on “social issues of questionable validity,” such as the Terry Schiavo case and a ban on gay marriage, which had no real shot of becoming law. Disagreement over Iraq has also hampered Congress’s ability to get other legislation moving, he said.

One lesson of 2006 will be that voters are tired of what they perceive as an increased nastiness in national political debates, he said. 

“We will have a more civil Congress in either event,” Armey said.

Cook predicted Democrats could gain at least 20 seats in the House. They need 15 to regain the majority.

A number of voter satisfaction polls paint a gloomier picture for Republicans than they had for Democrats in 1994. But because of redistricting, Cook summarized: “The wave is bigger but there are fewer structures on the beach of somewhat more durable construction.”

Democrats could also expect to gain four seats in the Senate, and maybe five or six, Cook added. Democrats need six seats to regain control of that body.

Dunn disagreed that Republicans would lose their congressional majorities. She predicted, for example, that Democrats would pick up only 12 seats in the House. Republicans will survive because of incumbency and money advantages and because local issues like tax rates favor the Republican candidates, Dunn said.

With closer margins, Dunn predicted legislation would move “slowly.” The lame duck session would be “very short,” although Dunn added that lawmakers would probably agree to extend the research and development tax credit popular with business groups.

She blamed Democrats for blocking legislative initiatives this Congress, such as pension reform in the so-called “trifecta” bill.

But Dunn added that her party would probably engage in “national brainstorming” following the election, after which “new heroes” might emerge within the GOP. She specifically mentioned Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the Republican Study Group, a fiscal conservative group that has challenged House leadership over spending increases.

Blanchard said the outcome of the midterm election would have consequences beyond the nation’s borders. A Democratic win, he said, will signal to other nations that the country is interested in charting a more moderate course in its foreign policy initiatives.

GOP-LEANING LOBBYING FIRMS

Lobbying Firm / Lobbying Revenues* / Senior Democrats

Barbour, Griffith $ Rogers / $11.3 million  
Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock / $3.7 million  
DC Navigators / $2.2 million  
DCI Group / Not available  
The Ashcroft Group / $1.4 million  
The Federalist Group / $6.9 million / Former Rep. Chris John (La.)
Blank Rome Government Relations / $5.2 million / Peter Peyser, Heather Podesta 
   
* Jan. 1–June 30, 2006