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Van Drew, after flipping parties, bashes bills he once backed

Van Drew, after flipping parties, bashes bills he once backed
© Greg Nash

For Rep. Jeff Van DrewJeff Van DrewWe can't let sand mining threaten storm-buffering, natural infrastructure Sunday shows preview: Biden administration grapples with border surge; US mourns Atlanta shooting victims Pro-union bill passes House, setting up lobbying battle in Senate MORE (N.J.), swapping party allegiances has also meant reversing course on the top issues moving through Congress.

The second-term Republican, who left the Democratic Party last year to protest the first impeachment of former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE, had supported every one of the Democrats' top nine legislative priorities in the last Congress, most of them before he jumped to the GOP. That list featured some of the more controversial issues Congress considers, including gun reform, climate change, immigration and equal pay between the genders.

Yet if Democratic leaders are banking on Van Drew's support this year as they race to move virtually identical bills through a bitterly divided House, they'd better reconsider.

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In the early weeks of the new Congress, Van Drew has already voted against two of those nine proposals, opposing bills expanding gay rights and overhauling the campaign finance system. And he's hinting he'll also switch his position on other bills to come.

“Gotta look at them again,” Van Drew told The Hill this week.

In a typical Congress, a single vote from a minority member would be, in a practical sense, inconsequential. But this is no typical Congress.

After losing more than a dozen seats in November, Democrats have a razor-thin majority, and can afford to lose no more than a few members of their caucus on any controversial legislation that hits the floor. That dynamic means the votes of moderates in both parties will frequently prove crucial — and will be watched with careful eyes by Democratic leaders, who are rushing to get as much of their agenda as possible to the Senate before April.

“The issues that are dealt with in these early bills are issues we think are critically important,” Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP House Democrats eye vote next week to form Jan. 6 commission MORE (D-Md.), the House majority leader, told reporters this week, noting that each of the top proposals enjoys broad public support outside the Beltway.

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For Van Drew, a former dentist and state lawmaker representing South Jersey, this week's campaign finance vote was an early signal of things to come. In 2019, just weeks into his first year on Capitol Hill, Van Drew hailed the legislation for its power to “clean up corruption in Washington, restore our democracy, and promote bipartisanship.”

“We need to restore our democracy to a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he said at the time.

Two years later, he was singing a very different tune, hammering the proposal on the House floor on Wednesday with warnings that it would erode the country's capitalistic foundations.

“We were warned for years about the rise of socialism,” Van Drew said. “Well, here it is, served on a platter.”

In an interview just after the proposal was approved, Van Drew was less fiery in explaining his change of heart, saying he became newly concerned with the legislation after witnessing problems with the dissemination of unrequested ballots in November’s election. Some voters in his district got multiple ballots, he said. Others received ballots despite moving to different towns. And ballots went out to some voters who had passed away.

“The rolls haven't been cleaned, and I think that it really does actually open up ... the voting systems for fraud and abuse,” he said.

Van Drew said he also opposed a provision of the bill creating a publicly funded matching program for small donations to congressional candidates. Moderate House Democrats fought to ensure those funds would be derived of legal penalties, including those slapped on corporate wrong-doing, and not directly from taxpayers. But Van Drew and other Republicans maintain that's a distinction in search of a difference.

“You can say it's not tax dollars,” Van Drew said. “But it's money that could be going to something that tax dollars are going to be needed for.”

Still, there are certain Democratic proposals Van Drew says he'll likely back when they come to the floor, including an expansion of background checks for gun purchases, which has attracted bipartisan support in the past.

“Unless there's something new in the bill, I've always supported background checks, so I think I would be in the same place with that,” Van Drew said.

He'll be tested shortly: the background check legislation, along with a second gun reform bill, is scheduled to receive a vote next week. And Democrats are teeing up other top items on their legislative wish-list in the weeks to follow, including bills tackling climate change, boosting the nation's infrastructure, lowering prescription drug costs, expanding voting rights, and extending citizenship to qualified immigrants living in the country illegally.

Van Drew had supported all of them in the 116th Congress, including a ‘yes’ vote for the infrastructure package after he'd switched parties. Whether he does so again, even he is not saying.

“I guess that I'm being careful,” Van Drew said. “I'm not just automatically voting one way or the other, or voting Republican. But I do really want to make sure that I'm reflecting the view of my voters in my district.”