The Hill: Centrist Lawmakers Eye Growing Power in 2019

By Melanie Zanona, 3/27/18, Washington, D.C.

Moderate lawmakers in both parties believe their influence will rise after the midterm elections no matter which party takes control of the House.

The centrists are projecting that either Democrats or Republicans could have a narrow majority, which would give lawmakers in the middle more power to drive the agenda as leaders come begging for their votes.

Coalitions of moderate lawmakers also suspect their ranks will swell next year given the political climate.

“If it’s a slim [GOP] majority, we also win,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whip of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. “You can’t ignore us anymore. You’re going to have to cut some deals if you want to get something done.”

“The idea that you can do it alone,” he added, “is not going to work if you’ve only got a two- or three-seat majority.”

Centrist Republicans have similar hopes.

“The majorities are going to be narrower, but whether it’s in Republican hands or Democratic hands that will only allow a group like ours to have more influence over the process,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

Moderate lawmakers have lost their foothold in the House over the past several years, especially following the historic Tea Party wave in 2010 that gave the GOP a large majority.

Blue Dog Democrats, a conservative and rural segment of the party, dwindled in size from 54 in 2008 to 18. Now they are hoping for a comeback.

“We’re going to have a lot more say in policy and legislation,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition. “I certainly want the Democrat majority, but even if it’s a slim [GOP] majority, the Republicans still need some of the more moderate individuals that might be Democrats to work with them.”

“So either way,” he added, “I think we’re going to be in a good place.”

Efforts to push more bipartisan ideas through Congress have been ramping up over the past year. The Problem Solvers Caucus, which works closely with the bipartisan advocacy group No Labels, launched last year with the goal of building bipartisan consensus on key policy issues.

The 48-member caucus is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. If 75 percent of the group and more than 50 percent of each party agrees on an issue, then the entire caucus will vote as a unified bloc.

The strategy takes a page from the book of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, which takes formal positions on issues if 80 percent of its members agree. The group of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners has been highly effective at blocking bills on the House floor.

“Any bloc of any legislators that is able to stick together is able to be kingmakers … but the only real organized blocs in the House has been on the far right and far left,” said Ryan Clancy, the chief strategist at No Labels. “What hadn’t existed, until recently, is something like the Problem Solvers Caucus.”

The caucus has already produced bipartisan solutions on a range of contentious issues, including health care, immigration and guns — but none of the proposals have been brought to the floor.

The group blames how legislative business is conducted in the House and has started discussing some potential rules changes that could increase their power.

No Labels has been encouraging lawmakers to withhold their support for the next Speaker unless the candidate agrees to a package of rules changes. Moderates would have even more leverage to make demands from future leaders if there is a slimmer majority.

Some potential reforms that could make moderates stronger include allowing more open rules and amendments, ensuring conference committees have members from both parties, requiring the Speaker to receive a larger majority to win the gavel and abandoning the Republican practice of only allowing a bill to come to the floor if it has a majority of the GOP’s support.

That would force the majority to negotiate with the minority and increase the odds of achieving bipartisan solutions in Congress, the group says.

Reed said he would even consider supporting a Democrat’s bid for Speaker if they agreed to certain rule reforms.

But such reforms are sure to face fierce resistance in both parties, and it’s unclear whether enough centrist lawmakers would be willing to play hardball.

“It might entail some political risks, but if they’re willing to make some asks … it could have huge rewards,” Clancy said.

While a number of Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus are facing tough reelection races, Reed said he is hearing more interest than ever before from “influential stakeholders” who want to help get pragmatic lawmakers elected to Congress in order to break gridlock.

No Labels is planning an aggressive effort to spend tens of millions of dollars to protect moderates in both parties from primary challenges.

The Blue Dogs are also expecting to increase their numbers next year, especially as Democrats seek to win over the blue-collar voters that fled the party to support President Trump. They recently gained Conor Lamb, who pulled off a special election victory in a Pennsylvania district that Trump carried by 20 points.

The coalition’s political arm has become a bigger player in the Democratic strategy to win back the House, which is further raising hopes they will wield more influence next year.

“The road to the majority is through the coalition. … The political arm of the Blue Dogs is very active,” said Kristen Hawn, a senior adviser for the group’s political action committee. “We’re seeing a lot more interest, and a lot of fundraising is up.”

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