December 28, 2005 | Commentary on
Congressional Democrats Are Left Frustrated in Advance of 2006
As this session of Congress winds down, it's worth examining one
largely unreported drama -- the outcome of which could determine
how House Democrats fare in next year's elections.
The question is: Will House Democrats remain as united in
opposition to the Republican agenda as they were in October and
November, when even the most conservative Democrats were voting in
lockstep with hyper-liberal House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Or
will moderate Democrats provide House GOP leaders with enough votes
to bypass their insurgent moderate-Republican wing and advance a
politically attractive, but modest, conservative policy agenda?
Two mid-December votes shed light on this important question.
First, on December 14, the House renewed the 16 expiring
provisions of the Patriot Act, the law that gives law enforcement
authorities important investigative tools with which to pursue
suspected terrorists. The very thought of renewing the Patriot Act,
of course, alarms civil libertarians and the liberal base of the
Democratic Party. What may come as a surprise, however, is that
more than 20% of House Democrats (44 in all) supported the
extensions, and that the House Democratic leadership team split
right down the middle on this decisive vote.
While Pelosi remained true to her liberal San Francisco roots and
led the opposition to the Patriot Act, her top lieutenant, House
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.), sheepishly supported it. Hoyer
issued a lukewarm statement explaining his vote. Though he argued
hat the legislation "should have done more to protect fundamental
civil liberties," Hoyer ultimately supported the President,
explaining: "I believe the USA Patriot Act helps provide our
government with some of the tools necessary to try to prevent
future attacks on our nation."
The ongoing tension between the two leading House Democrats --
Hoyer and Pelosi were also on different sides of the
intra-Democratic debate over whether to withdraw U.S. troops from
Iraq -- is the most underreported story in Washington.
In contrast, House Republicans presented a more united front, with
a mere 8% (a total of 18) voting against the measure.
The second noteworthy development came two days later, when the
House approved a hotly debated measure to strengthen border
security and increase enforcement of immigration laws. To read
leading press accounts, one would think that immigration divides
"The bill," wrote Washington Post reporter Jonathan Weisman, "was
designed to demonstrate to voters a new resolve on border security
before the House adjourns for the year." But, Weisman argued, "It
also revealed deep divisions in the Republican Party" by pitting
lawmakers who favor the creation of a guest-worker program against
their colleagues who remain "resolutely opposed to any plan that
would keep undocumented workers flowing into the country."
(Emphasis added.) Weisman quoted exclusively from warring factions
of House Republicans and went on to explain the broader political
dilemma immigration policy poses to the GOP.
No quarrel with this part of his analysis: Debates over
immigration policy have frayed the emotions of Hill Republicans for
decades. But Weisman didn't mention that immigration policy divides
the Democrats as well. While only 17 Republicans voted against the
border security measure, 36 Democrats crossed the aisle. The
National Council of La Raza, a liberal Hispanic advocacy group,
took the unusual step of threatening political retribution against
rebellious Democrats as well as Republicans.
Not only did the border security bill pit congressional Democrats
against liberal advocacy groups like La Raza, it created yet
another schism among House Democrats. Members of the all-Democratic
Congressional Hispanic Caucus who opposed the measure were aghast
to learn that Hoyer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who heads the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, advised their most
politically vulnerable colleagues to support the measure. "Here is
a seminal issue for their caucus," one Democratic House aide noted,
"and [the Democratic] leadership was whipping against it. They were
There is a common thread to the issues that divide congressional
Democrats: Iraq, the renewal of the Patriot Act, and efforts to
secure the border require members of Congress to take a clear stand
on how assertive they want the federal government to be in
prosecuting the War on Terror. Not only is this the issue on which
Republicans enjoy their greatest advantage over Democrats, but
voters continue to rank the War on Terror as the most important
issue facing America.
This must add to the quiet, and largely unreported, sense of
frustration Hill Democrats feel as this session of Congress draws
to a close.
Michael Franc who
has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president
of Government Relations.
First appeared in Human Events