A new chairman at helm, New Dems seek more influence in this Congress

The New Democrat Coalition enters the 113th Congress with a new chairman, a surge in membership and high hopes that it will seize the political power that’s largely eluded the group.

 The 16-year-old coalition, an odd band featuring lawmakers from both the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, has struggled to attain the influence and relevance of higher-profile Democratic blocs — partially because the members’ diversity on social issues has often split them on major legislation.

 But with Congress this year facing a laundry list of fiscal deadlines and budget battles, Rep. Ron Kind, the New Democrats’ new chairman, is hoping to position the group as a power broker able to bridge the partisan chasm that practically defines those coming fights. The nine-term Wisconsin Democrat says voters are fed up with the current gridlock, creating an opportunity for his cast of “pragmatists” to step in and affect the debate.

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 “They want to get things done, [and] typically they come from competitive districts, so they know that you can’t be too extreme on one side or the other,” Kind said this month during an interview from his office in the Longworth House Office Building. “We want to work hard to find that sensible center on policy and move the ball.”

 Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a vice chairman of the coalition, echoed that message this month. He noted that the jump in membership this year — from 43 to 50 — was fueled primarily by the 16 freshman Democrats who joined the group. That’s evidence, Connolly said, that the New Democrat “brand” is getting ever-more attractive in response to the increasingly entrenched partisanship of Capitol Hill.

 “The New Dems are going through an evolution. Our membership ranks are swollen. We’ve recruited and supported a number of very successful candidates in the last election cycle. And we continue to sort of sink our teeth substantively into fiscal stewardship, innovation, technology, healthcare [and] trade, and that helps burnish the brand,” Connolly said. “We want to make that brand mean something.”

 Founded in 1997, the New Democrat Coalition bills itself a group of pro-business “moderates” focused on economic growth by promoting free trade, a healthy high-tech sector and investments in education and infrastructure, among other areas. The group straddles the divide between the Progressive Caucus, symbolized by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and the Blue Dogs, who have seen their ranks depleted drastically in the last two election cycles.

 Kind insists the New Dems are not trying to replace the Blue Dogs as the deficit hawks of the party, noting that “there’s a lot of overlap, a lot of common interest between the two groups.” Indeed, six Blue Dogs also belong to the New Dems. 

 Still, Kind also said the sheer numbers of the New Dems, combined with their willingness to cross the aisle for the sake of compromise, puts them in a “unique” position ahead of the year’s looming fights over sequestration cuts, federal funding and raising the debt ceiling.

 “[Voters] want to see more pragmatic elected officials who don’t come to Washington with this ‘it’s my way or no way at all’ attitude,” said Kind, who voted against Pelosi for Democratic leader following the midterm elections of 2010.

 However, much of the group’s power will depend on how well Kind is able to keep his troops in line when it comes time to vote. An early litmus test came this month, when the House voted on a proposal sponsored by Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) — both New Dem members — urging President Obama to use the sweeping Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction outline to guide his own annual budget. 

While 30 New Dems voted in favor of that measure, representing more than half of all Democratic supporters, almost 20 members of the coalition opposed it. The vote highlighted both the influence and the limitation of the New Democrats.

 Several looming battles on social issues are also likely to test the unity of the New Dems. A number of the group’s more liberal members, for instance, are urging Congress to get behind Obama’s push for strict new gun controls in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre. 

 Kind, by contrast, is an avid hunter from a rural district who was named 2010 legislator of the year by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He’s approaching the debate much more warily.

 “I’m not drawing any lines right now,” Kind said this month, but “they [hunters] don’t want to see an overreach that’s going to affect the day-to-day activities that they feel they have a right to.”

 Democratic leaders recognize that the rising enrollment of the New Dems makes the group something of a force in the 113th Congress. Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said the group’s experience reaching across the aisle will be vital if Congress hopes to reach deals on the year’s pressing budget issues.

 “I have no doubt that the New Dems will play a leading role during critical legislative debates this Congress,” Hoyer said in an email. “House Democrats need more members like the New Dems to take back the House in 2014.”

 Some Republicans also had good things to say about the group’s role this Congress. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), for instance, lauded Kind’s “solutions-oriented approach to legislating.”  

 “He has something that can be rare in Washington, D.C., the ability to leave politics at the door and work for what’s best for the people of his district and our country,” Reichert said in an email.

 Kind seems aware that nothing will come easily, given the fierce partisanship that’s surrounded the year’s early budget debates. But in those looming fights, he also sees an opportunity.

 “We’re going to have to work hard to reach consensus on these issues,” Kind said. “That’s gonna be a unique and important role for the New Dem Coalition to play.”