By Hans Nichols - 03/23/05 12:00 AM EST
John Podesta, president of the progressive Center for American Progress (CAP), faced pointed questions from lawmakers at last Thursday’s New Democrat Coalition (NDC) meeting about an inflammatory e-mail his organization sent to liberal activists and bloggers.
In a March 9 e-mail, David Sirota, a fellow at CAP, accused 16 pro-business Democrats of supporting bankruptcy-reform legislation because they received political contributions from the commercial banks and credit-card companies that stand to benefit if the legislation becomes law.
The e-mail coursed through the blogosphere and generated angry phone calls from liberal activists to the offices of the 16 centrist Democrats. Sirota, a former minority spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, criticized 16 of the 20 Democrats who wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) March 7 urging him to bring bankruptcy reform to the House floor.
“And a look at campaign finance records shows why — the House Democrats who signed the letter pocketed a combined $750,000 in their two-year campaigns for Congress in 2004. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the industry giving these members $1,000 every single day of the last two years,” Sirota wrote, relying on figures from opensecrets.org.
The bill has yet to be voted on this year in the House.
Nearly every lawmaker who arrived at Thursday’s meeting with Podesta, former President Clinton’s last chief of staff, voiced concern about the Sirota broadside, calling it overtly personal and unhelpful to the two organizations’ shared goal of helping the Democratic Party grow.
It was unclear if Podesta was invited to the centrist group’s meeting as a result of Sirota’s e-mail, but the invitation came after the missive was sent March 9.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who did not support the bill in committee, told The Hill that he found the e-mail “personal and inappropriate.”
“The center [CAP] could have made the argument on the merits, but it chose to do so in a personal way,” said Schiff, one of roughly a dozen lawmakers who attended the meeting.
“The [NDC] wanted to say, ‘We’re all under the same flag here, and let’s not forget that,’” he said, adding that he felt the meeting ended on a positive note.
“There was a recognition that we’re going to have a difference of opinion,” he said.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the 41-member NDC, said, “I strongly disagree with Dave Sirota’s attack against Democratic members, but last week’s meeting with John Podesta and the Center for American Progress was a success.”
She added, “We are united in finding opportunities to work together on issues like tax policy and national security.”
Some participants said they were looking for more contrition than they received from Podesta and wanted assurances that his organization would abstain from attacking centrist Democrats for their pro-business stances.
According to an aide familiar with the meeting, one lawmaker said, “There is a school of thought out there that we should ‘shoot all the centrists,’ so John, are you of that school or do you want us to just go ahead and shoot ourselves now?”
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), one of the 16 lawmakers listed by Sirota, said, “The meeting was a constructive one and a good one. The e-mail was unfortunate.”
“The unfortunate thing about the e-mail is that it questioned the good faith of the Democrats who support the bankruptcy bill. Whenever you question the good faith, that’s problematic,” he said. “But I certainly don’t blame John for that e-mail. I don’t think it was authorized.”
“Certainly there is a disagreement over the bankruptcy bill,” he said.
“Was there a fair and honest exchange on the differences on bankruptcy? Yes. Was that the bulk of the meeting? No,” said an aide who attended the meeting.
Sirota did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, but Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman at CAP, said, “The views of the center on bankruptcy reform were expressed in a policy memo sent by Mr. Podesta.”
“Mr. Sirota’s analysis was an independent effort, separate from this institution,” she said.
“We had a good discussion with the members of Congress on a number of issues,” added Palmieri, who also attended the meeting.
The NDC’s outreach to think tanks such as CAP represents part of a revamped strategy to raise the profile of a group that, in previous congresses, has been long on numbers but short on activity.
Last Thursday’s gathering included outside participants such as New Democrat Network (NDN) President Simon Rosenberg, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and NDN strategist Cynthia Rice.