Centrists wary of push for majority of the majority rule

Several centrist-to-conservative Democrats say their leadership should continue to reject a majority of the majority rule despite pressure from liberals to impose the rule on several controversial trade measures.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I like majority rules,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), who argues the rule eventually hurt House Republicans when it was used by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

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Under the informal rule, GOP House leaders only brought measures to the floor that had the support of a majority of the majority caucus, with a few exceptions.

Pomeroy told The Hill one reason the GOP lost its House majority last year was that the majority of the majority rule gave too much power to the far-right of the Republican Party. “That rule gives tremendous power to narrow factions of a caucus,” he said.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) also told The Hill she would oppose the rule. When Democrats were in the minority, Harman said, she railed against the majority of the majority rule, and she could not support it now that Democrats have a majority.

Both Pomeroy and Harman are members of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who could lose power within the Democratic Caucus under a majority of the majority rule. For example, Blue Dog Democrats voted 35-8 in support of the Iraq supplemental, accounting for almost half of the 86 favorable Democratic votes. Eight other House Democrats seeking to join the Blue Dogs all voted in favor of the supplemental.

The 43-member Blue Dog caucus has not taken an official position on a majority of the majority rule, according to a Blue Dog aide. But this is not unusual, since the group, which focuses on fiscal issues, has only taken two official positions in the 110th Congress.

Talk of Democrats adopting the rule has increased in the wake of a trade deal with the administration endorsed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that angered some members, and a vote on funding the Iraq war just before the recess that was favored by a minority of Democrats.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) suggested that Democrats adopt a caucus resolution that a vote on extending President Bush’s fast-track authority, which would help the administration negotiate more trade deals, take place only if a majority of Democrats support doing so. Fast-track expires at the end of this month, and President Bush has repeatedly asked for its extension.

Pelosi, however, has given the cold shoulder to Sherman’s suggestion. “I would encourage my colleagues not to be proposing resolutions that say, if a majority-of-the-majority does this or that,” she said during a May 25 press conference in the wake of the Iraq vote. “We have to talk it out, see what is possible to get a job done. And as I said, we do that together.”

A spokesman for Sherman, however, said the resolution proposal remains on the table, and that Sherman is still talking to Pelosi and seeking assurances that fast-track and controversial trade deals with Colombia and South Korea not come up unless they have majority Democratic support.

Sherman isn’t alone. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine), a Blue Dog, both said they would support a majority of the majority rule on fast-track. Both are well-known critics of free-trade policies who have voted against trade deals.

Some of Pelosi’s closest allies speak favorably of at least trying to bring to the floor only measures that have majority Democratic support.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a close adviser to Pelosi, said that while there has been no caucus discussion of such a rule, leadership has reshaped some bills in response to member complaints to increase support.

Murtha also said he thinks it is important to have a majority of Democrats support legislation brought to the floor. “Then
everybody has their say, and we fashion something that suits the majority,” Murtha told The Hill. “And Nancy’s trying to do that.”

On trade, a majority of the majority rule wouldn’t prevent votes on the Peru or Panama deals because they are to be submitted under the president’s existing fast-track authority. It could, however, prevent the Congress from considering an extension of fast-track, and it would make votes on the Colombia and South Korea trade deals politically more difficult.

While those two deals may also be submitted under the existing fast-track, giving them a path to the floor, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who negotiated the trade deal with the administration, says additional steps must be taken on both deals if they are to be considered.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he didn’t want to give Democrats advice, but also criticized the Republican rule and suggested Democrats would be unwise to adopt it. He said that rule was one reason why House GOP leaders didn’t bring an immigration bill to the floor last summer. “And I think we paid the price,” said Flake, referring to last fall’s elections.