Dem campaign anxiety: Vulnerables say they lack cover from Pelosi

Politically vulnerable Democrats say Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders aren’t offering them the protection from tough votes that they did in the last Congress.

Conservative Democrats fear that dozens of members could be swept out of their districts in the midterm election next year, and that fear has been intensifying in recent weeks.

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Between a tough vote on a climate change bill that many don’t expect to become law and a leftward push on healthcare legislation, Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) critics within her caucus say she’s left the so-called “majority makers” exposed.

“She keeps trying to push an unpopular package,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a centrist Blue Dog Democrat, referring to healthcare. “I think it’s fair to say they were better at it before.”

Another Blue Dog lawmaker put it more bluntly.

“They’re seriously endangering their majority,” said the Blue Dog, who requested anonymity. “With the increased margin and a [Democratic] president, there seems to be a different feeling.”

There are 79 more Democrats than Republicans in the lower chamber, giving Pelosi a strong working majority. But her caucus includes 84 Democrats who represent districts won by either President George W. Bush in 2004 or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.

“In a party this big and diverse, somebody’s going to get left out,” said Rep. Parker Griffith (Ala.), a conservative Democrat who has criticized the Speaker.
Pelosi’s defenders note that in the last Congress, she was dealing with a thinner majority and a Republican president. Now she is tasked with moving a Democratic agenda, instead of trying to pass veto-proof bills or legislation that a Republican president could sign.

The most dangerous situation for Democrats in the 2010 election, the  Pelosi allies say, will be if Democrats cannot enact their agenda.

“Being in the majority and being in charge means you have to do something,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), a centrist who voted for the climate change bill. “I don’t think people should be surprised. We knew we wanted to do healthcare and an energy bill. The Speaker’s attention to first-and second-term Democrats hasn’t changed.”

Pelosi is one of the most powerful Speakers in recent memory and has many close relationships with liberal and conservative Democrats. With bolstered majorities in both chambers and a friend in the White House, she knows that now is the time to push a bold and aggressive agenda.

“She’s a masterful herder of cats,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), a sophomore who wrested his district from a Republican. He said he believes Pelosi enjoys “overwhelming” support among his fellow centrists.

Pelosi has raised more than $14 million for Democrats this year. And she hasn’t shied away from conservative districts. Last weekend, for example, she raised $1 million on a swing through Texas.

When she was minority leader, she didn’t raise as much money in  Southern districts and other GOP-leaning areas, but now, more House Democrats have welcomed her to meet their constituents.

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Yet fears are growing in Democratic circles as political handicappers like Charlie Cook talk about Democrats losing more than 20 seats next fall. At a fundraiser this week, Vice President Joe Biden referred to 35 House seats that Republicans have targeted.

“If they take them back, this is the end of the road for what Barack and  I are trying to do,” Biden said. “This is their one shot.”

The House is the Democrats’ major concern because Republicans have almost no chance to win back control of the Senate.

It would take a huge net loss of 39 House seats to swing control into  Republican hands. Historical trends show that the president’s party loses seats in a midterm election, though that trend was bucked in 1998 and 2002.

Should Democrats lose about 20 seats, getting controversial legislation through the House would be extremely difficult.

The slog of legislating also seems to have slowed Democrats’ momentum. The Republican right-wing base has been fired up by the August town hall meetings, Tea Party protests and skepticism about Obama’s big agenda. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ left-wing base is growing dispirited by Obama’s actions, or lack thereof, on gay-rights issues and the prospect that the president will escalate the war in  Afghanistan.

Centrists say Pelosi protected vulnerable members from conservative districts more consistently in the previous Congress. For example, after calling offshore drilling a “hoax,” she relented and allowed a vote that opened up the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas exploration. She also backed off to centrists on terrorist surveillance.

Leaders have allowed members to vote against leadership on procedural votes with impunity. Republicans specifically targeted vulnerable freshman Democrats with procedural moves called “motions to recommit” on contentious matters, like guns and national security.

Pelosi also helped Blue Dogs avoid a showdown with the powerful National Rifle Association by allowing a vote on a bill that would erase many of the District of Columbia’s gun laws. And to the relief of some centrist Democrats, the Speaker has refused to have the House vote on immigration reform and a union-backed “card-check” bill until the Senate acts first.

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Many centrists credit Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, then a congressman from Illinois and a member of leadership, for pushing Pelosi to protect vulnerable members. As the former head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, Emanuel had recruited many of them to run in the 2006 election that gave Democrats the majority.

“Rahm could say, ‘Nance, I’m the guy who delivered the House.’ He had a special ability to talk to her,” said a senior Democratic aide.

This year, members have been asked to spend $787 billion to stimulate the economy and vote on a budget with many liberal agenda items.

Democratic members point most to Pelosi’s handling of the climate change measure. Pelosi worked the floor relentlessly to pass the fast- tracked bill, persuading a number of worried centrists to vote for it just before the Independence Day holiday. Some Democratic centrists have regretted backing that bill.

What irks them most is the sense that the Senate won’t pass anything so strong, if it passes anything at all. So they expect to get beaten up for voting on a bill that will never become law.

“What bothers me is I was put in that position unnecessarily,” said one vulnerable lawmaker.

That has made vulnerable and centrist lawmakers wary now that lawmakers are working on the president’s top priority: healthcare. Centrist Blue Dogs threatened to stop the bill in committee, saying their priorities had been ignored, particularly on the contentious issue of a “public option.”

That group negotiated a compromise, but Blue Dogs were enraged this week to find out that Pelosi has told fellow leaders she was backing a public option and a surtax that ignored that deal. Pelosi has since backed off, saying she will leave the decision to the caucus.

Still, vulnerable Democrats are worried that they will be pressured into supporting a public option that many of their constituents consider a “government takeover.”

Aides say centrist lawmakers have complained loudly to House Majority  Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) when they feel like Pelosi isn’t listening.

Hoyer has been more open to a bill without a public option than  Pelosi, who has said a measure without one can’t pass the House.