Democratic 'big tent' electoral success now leads to governing headaches

Democratic 'big tent' electoral success now leads to governing headaches

A “big-tent approach” that helped Democrats win the House majority is now giving them headaches as they push healthcare reform.

The electoral success that came with opening their party to many centrists and conservatives in Republican-leaning districts is now causing problems for party leaders, who have been struggling to find unity on President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden, Harris tear into Trump in first joint appearance The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates It's Harris — and we're not surprised MORE’s top domestic initiative.

ADVERTISEMENT

Disagreements have kept party leaders from moving quicker toward a floor debate, with factions of the party at odds over the inclusion of a government-run healthcare system, how to pay for the healthcare initiative, and whether to include strong prohibitions against federal funding of abortion and strong language aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from getting benefits from the bills.

The tension can be attributed to more than 50 seats won in 2006 and 2008 that make this Democratic Caucus as diverse ideologically as those in the 1960s. Reps. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.) and Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), liberals who lead the House Progressive Caucus, are in the same caucus with conservative Reps. Jim Marshall (Ga.), Dan Boren (Okla.) and Bobby Bright (Ala.).

With 256 Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can muscle legislation through if she has everyone in the party behind her. But it also means Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) have to walk a tighter rope to win consensus among disparate factions of the caucus' ideological wings.

Democrats acknowledge that a larger and more diverse majority makes broad consensus more difficult. But with they also can afford to lose more members on a particular bill while still achieving passage.

"Of course we are glad to have a bigger majority – it gives us more opportunities to pass legislation," said one House Democratic aide. "With [a] bigger majority, you can let more people go to vote against any one particular bill; some people who vote against one bill will then vote for another bill. The larger the majority, the more flexibility you have to get to 218 votes."

The most obvious sticking point is whether to include the “public option” in the bill, and what kind of public option that should be. Liberals want a “robust” public option with rates that are tied to Medicare. Many centrists are not open to including one, and those that are want the federal government to negotiate rates with carriers.

Grijalva has called the “robust” public option central to reform. In July, 60 members of the liberal group of lawmakers sent a letter to Pelosi and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), calling a deal between Blue Dogs and Waxman "unacceptable." The 60 members said they would not vote for the Energy and Commerce Committee's bill.

Blue Dogs have voiced serious concern about the costs involved in a major reform effort, arguing against spending too much. The coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats has indicated it would vote against a plan that cost too much.

No House Republicans are expected to vote for the bill. So with 218 votes needed to pass it, Democrats cannot afford to lose more than 38 members.

Considering that the Progressive Caucus has at least 80 members and the Blue Dogs have 52, and that spells trouble if either faction votes en masse against the bill.

Democrats on Capitol Hill say the party has had success so far this year in passing legislation despite the ideological divide. Even though a number of centrists voted against the bills, the party has led the charge on climate change legislation, the $787 billion stimulus and an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

In fact, Democratic aides said only one major legislative proposal -- the union-backed card-check legislation -- had been delayed because of concerns from centrist members, though House leadership aides laid blame with the Senate, which has not acted on the bill yet.