Dems receive honors after bucking party on key agenda points

More than two dozen House Democrats are getting campaign cover from a small-business group praising them for opposing key parts of their party’s agenda.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which generally aligns with the GOP, has given its signature “Guardian of Small Business” award to 29 House Democrats in 2010, more than twice as many as it did in 2008. The recipients include some of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents, boosting their standing with a politically popular constituency.

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The honors are a recognition of the lawmakers’ independence more than they are an endorsement of the national Democratic agenda, however.

They were based on votes on seven key bills in the last two years, and Democrats were rewarded for opposing two of the party’s big-ticket items: healthcare reform and cap-and-trade energy legislation. In total, five of the seven key votes urged lawmakers to reject the Democratic position.

“To get the Guardian award, they had to make some pretty tough votes against the Democratic leadership and the White House,” said Brad Close, the NFIB’s vice president for public policy.

Democrats are touting the awards as evidence that counters Republican attacks that the vulnerable incumbents are lapdogs for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Obama administration. The party has similarly trumpeted endorsements for centrist and conservative members from groups like the National Rifle Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that traditionally back Republicans.

While the NFIB has recognized 29 Democrats, it has honored and endorsed dozens more Republicans.

“A number of [the key votes] were votes against the agenda,” noted Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), one of the Guardian recipients. He said the award demonstrated that “I have a strong record of supporting small businesses.”

The Guardian awards do not constitute an endorsement, but they guarantee that the NFIB won’t actively oppose the recipient for reelection, Close said. The group, which represents approximately 350,000 small businesses nationwide, has endorsed seven House Democrats — Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.), John Barrow (Ga.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Lincoln Davis (Tenn.), Mike McIntyre (N.C.) and Dan Boren (Okla.), according to the most recently available list provided by the NFIB. Close said the NFIB would be endorsing additional candidates through Election Day.

The seven votes that the NFIB scored in the 111th Congress were fewer than the 10 to 15 the group usually tags as crucial, leading to grumbling by some Democrats that the NFIB did not count legislation Democrats aimed at small businesses, like a $30 billion lending fund that Congress passed in September. Close described the lending bill as a “mixed bag” for its members, citing concerns about federal spending. The NFIB also wanted to see the legislation broadened to address provisions that expire at the end of the year, such as the estate tax and George W. Bush-era income tax cuts.

The small pool of bills was thus heavily weighted against Democratic priorities. Three of the seven scored measures involved the healthcare overhaul opposed by the NFIB, effectively ensuring that recipients of the Guardian award were lawmakers who voted against the legislation. A fourth scored bill would have repealed a provision in the healthcare law that required businesses to report to the IRS transactions valued at $600 or more. The NFIB also opposed the Disclose Act, a campaign finance bill, and supported the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights, which passed in 2009.

“We were disappointed with some of the issues that came to the floor in the last two years,” Close said in assessing the Democratic agenda.

For the Democrats honored by the group, however, the Guardian distinction helps to validate their decision to break ranks with the party leadership, particularly on healthcare. “Both from a policy and a political standpoint, it’s pretty clear I made the right vote,” said Kratovil, a healthcare reform opponent. He cited concerns about the legislation’s impact on small businesses, which he has championed in a number of bills he has introduced as a freshman in the House.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included an outdated list of some Democrats who had received the Guardian award but not an NFIB endorsement. It referred to a list of endorsed candidates as of Sept. 21. Reps. Bobby Bright (Ala.) and Walt Minnick (Idaho) have since been endorsed by the NFIB.