Dem leaders see leverage in upcoming House policy fights

With House Republicans divided over budget issues, Democratic leaders are hoping to have significant influence over the high-stakes spending debates poised to consume Capitol Hill through the rest of the year.

"A minority cannot defeat a bill, only a majority can defeat a bill," Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday during a brief press conference in the Capitol.

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"So if the Republican majority can't do its work and get a bill done and they need to seek out support for a bipartisan solution then they should expect that the minority will have an opportunity to participate in the crafting of that solution."

Following the defection of more than 100 House Republicans on the prominent "minibus" spending bill that passed just before Thanksgiving, Democrats appear to have an upper hand as Congress takes on a long list of "must pass" bills before the end of the year. That list includes legislation to extend a payroll tax holiday, extend unemployment insurance benefits, prevent a steep pay cut for doctors who treat Medicare patients and fund the government into 2012.

The minibus vote was part of a larger trend this year in the House, where Republican leaders, despite having a strong majority, have struggled to rally enough GOP votes to pass high-profile spending bills in the face of conservative concerns over deficit spending. Indeed, Republicans needed dozens of Democratic votes in April to prevent a government shutdown and again in August to prevent a government default.

The dynamics are very different from the last Congress, when the GOP minority was frequently unanimous in its opposition to Democratic bills, forcing then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to secure support from at least 218 Democrats to pass scores of high-profile proposals.

Becerra said the lack of GOP unity on spending issues should lend Democrats a stronger voice in the upcoming debates.

"What the Republican leadership in the House has found is that they failed to get the votes they need to pass a Republican — a heavily Republican-driven bill — especially on very important matters like the budget," Becerra said. "I hope that what we find is that we can pass a bipartisan bill."

Still, other Democratic leaders downplayed the Democrats' leverage in December's budget battles. Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus, noted that Republicans still control what legislation hits the floor and when it gets there.
 
"It's hard to say what kind of leverage that we have in the minority when the majority holds all the cards [and] controls the calendar," Larson said.