New Dems hope to be a force in 113th Congress

The New Democrat Coalition has swelled in numbers and hopes to fill the power vacuum created by the recent and rapid decline of the Blue Dog Coalition.

The group — whose members advocate a free-trade, business-friendly agenda that sometimes bucks the party — is hoping to emerge as a powerbroker in the 113th Congress.

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Although the 15-year-old group of centrists has been frequently overshadowed by the conservative-leaning Blue Dogs and the liberals of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, New Democrats say their growing membership — combined with the looming debates over economic issues they see as their bread and butter — will give them greater sway in the fights that will almost certainly define the coming months on Capitol Hill.

"We've got a group of members that is well-represented from throughout the country who are willing to roll up our sleeves and work with anyone to try to find some common-sense and balanced and fair solutions to the fiscal hole that we're in right now," Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), the newly-elected chairman of the coalition, said Thursday. "We hope in the days to come to play that constructive role."

Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), a vice-chairwoman of the coalition, echoed that message this week, casting the New Democrats as an above-the-fray group that will ignore partisan politics in the name of getting things done.

"It's shortly after the election, but we do really think it is time to set aside the political debates and do some sound, important policy," she said. "We're open to new ideas, we're open to meeting our goals in a variety of different ways [and] we believe strongly in finding that common ground amongst Democrats and, of course, with our Republican colleagues as well."

Working in their favor, the group has picked up more than a dozen new members since the Nov. 6 elections — a combination of newly elected-Democrats and incumbents who have joined this month — growing their ranks to at least 52 next year. (A few House races are still too close to call). Meanwhile, the Blue Dog Democrats — who boasted a membership of 54 in the 111th Congress — will see that number shrink to 14 in the 113th.

The New Democrats see new leverage in those shifting dynamics, and they're hoping to exert it in the upcoming budget battles.

"We must address our nation's debt and tackle long-term deficit reduction to put our nation on a path towards strengthened and sustainable growth," the group wrote Thursday to President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "Our group will work with you to secure agreement on a plan of significance."

Members of the group say they can transcend the partisanship they blame for the political stalemate that defined the last two years on Capitol Hill.

"Boehner's got to deal with the Republicans, the president's got to deal with the Democrats," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). "The reality is there're groups within those [parties] that make it far more difficult, beyond their numbers, to reach a deal."

Still, New Democrats have struggled in efforts to sway the major policy debates of recent years. And with the Democrats still in the House minority, there's more pressure on all party members to rally behind their leadership — led by the liberal Pelosi — in opposition to the conservative Republicans under Boehner.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.), another vice chairman of the New Democrats, acknowledged Friday that the coalition has been less influential than it's hoped in the past. But the high-stakes negotiations on the "fiscal cliff" and a deficit-reduction package, he was quick to add, provide the group with the "legislative opportunity" to be "serious players" in those coming fights.

"We're going to assert our values, our views, our take on something even if that might mean that it's somewhat at variance with, say, prevailing wisdom in our Caucus … or the White House," he said. "We can provide some political space for broadening our debate on economic issues in our Caucus."

Connolly was quick to point out that New Democrats are already pushing back against Pelosi's early and blanket opposition to entitlement benefit cuts as part of the budget negotiations. (The group says all options should be on the table in this early stage of the talks). He also claimed the group was influential in providing guidance to other Democrats surrounding Friday's passage of legislation expanding trade with Russia — a proposal the group supported.

"Fair enough that you're skeptical — I've heard it before," Connolly said of the group's influence. "But I think you're already seeing signs of a more assertive role."