Congressional 'Centrists' Meeting on Healthcare

According to The Hill, self-described "centrist" lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are working together privately on healthcare reform.

The talks have been so secretive and politically sensitive that some members interviewed by The Hill refused to name other legislators involved in the bipartisan effort.

Members of the centrist GOP "Tuesday Group," the New Democrat Coalition and the 52-member Blue Dog Coalition have been discussing both the policies and politics of moving their middle-of-the-road ideas in a body of Congress usually dominated by liberal or conservative ideology.

Those centrist factions are wary of the proposals their respective leaders will introduce this month. Blue Dogs are leery of the so-called public option in the healthcare reform bill that is expected to hit the House floor this summer. Meanwhile, GOP centrists opted to release their own healthcare plan a day before House GOP leaders are scheduled to unveil their reform package.

Noting that some members could be retaliated against by their leaders, some lawmakers declined to mention to whom they were talking. Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) said that he wouldn't "throw [Blue Dogs] under the bus" by revealing the identities of his Democratic colleagues.

Asked last Friday about talks with GOP centrists on healthcare reform, Blue Dog Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) confirmed that his colleagues are actively working on compromises.

"A lot of us have tried to work together -- and I'm pleased to see that some of the centrists on their side of the aisle are willing to work with some centrists on the Democratic side of the aisle, and I think you will see that work continue," Davis said.

An aide to Davis later clarified that the congressman meant that "Blue Dogs have met with leaders from all sides in the past on a number of issues, but he wasn't referring to anything specifically that happened recently."

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a longtime leader of the 34-member Tuesday Group, said that "these conversations take place on a piecemeal basis, but there's no formal meetings."

The efforts seem more ad hoc than anything else. It is nonetheless disconcerting that members of the Democratic Party can not bring themselves to support a public option.

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A Thank You To Some Conservadems

Yeah, you heard me right. I'm writing a diary to thank some of the biggest pains in the asses...Blue Dogs and Conservative Dems who have stood in our way before.

This thank you is specifically in reference to the Matthew Shepard Act. When looking at the roll call, I was surprised by some of the names in the Yea column. These Democrats were likely voting against the opinion of their conservative districts, but nevertheless saw the need to expand hate crimes legislation anyway. As we've seen with EFCA, sometimes Democrats seem to be inclined to vote for something when they know it won't be law, only to back off when we have a President willing to sign said legislation into law. In this case these historically conservative Dems and/or Dems in conservative districts voted for this knowing damn well President Obama supports it and will sign it into law.

Credit where credit is due

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Bayh rolls out "Moderate Dems Working Group": Does it matter?

Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana announced plans in December to form an equivalent of the Blue Dog caucus in the Senate. Today his office rolled out the Moderate Dems Working Group:

WASHINGTON - A diverse group of 15 Senate Democrats today announced the formation of a new moderate coalition that will meet regularly to shape public policy. The group's goal is to work with the Senate leadership and the new administration to craft common-sense solutions to urgent national problems.

The Moderate Dems Working Group will meet every other Tuesday before the Democratic Caucus lunch to discuss legislative strategies and ideas. The Moderate Dems held their second meeting Tuesday to focus on the upcoming budget negotiations and the importance of passing a fiscally responsible spending plan in the Senate.

Leading the new group are Democratic Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana, Tom Carper of Delaware and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Both Senators Bayh and Carper were successful governors before coming to the Senate. Senators Lincoln and Carper bring bicameral experience to the group as former members of the House of Representatives. All three leaders are honorary co-chairs of Third Way, a progressive Democratic policy group, and Senators Bayh and Carper have led the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

At the working group meeting, Senator Bayh acknowledged that such a large group was unlikely to agree on all major issues before the Senate. Yet the Moderate Dems are joined by a shared commitment to pursue pragmatic, fiscally sustainable policies across a range of issues, such as deficit containment, health care reform, the housing crisis, educational reform, energy policy and climate change.

In addition to Senators Bayh, Carper and Lincoln, others joining the group are Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

A few things jumped out at me:

15 members is a quarter of the Democratic Senate caucus. That's proportionally larger than the Blue Dog caucus in the House.

Look how many first-term senators have joined up with Bayh: McCaskill from the class of 2006 and Udall, Begich, Hagan, Shaheen and Warner from the class of 2008.

Of the Moderate Dems, only Bennet, Lincoln and Bayh are up for re-election in 2010. Lincoln and Bayh are not expected to face tough challenges.  

Of the Moderate Dems, only Lincoln, Landrieu, Begich and Ben Nelson represent states carried by John McCain. Why did the others rush to join a caucus that (based on Bayh's record) will try to water down President Barack Obama's agenda?

Back in December Matthew Yglesias advanced a very plausible hypothesis about Bayh's agenda:

With Republicans out of power, the GOP can't really block progressive change in exchange for large sums of special interest money. That creates an important market niche for Democrats willing to do the work. It was a good racket for the House Blue Dogs in 2007-2008 and there's no reason it couldn't work for Senate analogues over the next couple of years.

Bayh's press release includes a ludicrous quote from Harry Reid:

Of the working group's formation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, "If we are going to deliver the change Americans demanded and move our country forward, it will require the courage to get past our political differences and get to work. Established organizations like Third Way and new ventures like this group offer us a new opportunity to get things done, and I support every effort that puts real solutions above political posturing."

Raise your hand if you believe that Bayh's group is going to offer "a new opportunity to get things done."

The only good I can imagine coming of Bayh's venture is if the group gives some political cover to Democratic senators representing red or purple states, making it harder for Republicans to tie them to liberal bogeymen.

This optimistic scenario would pan out only if the Moderate Dems do not consistently vote as a bloc with Bayh. Earlier this month, David Waldman/Kagro X analyzed some Senate votes in which Bayh supported Republican amendments. If you click that link you'll see that various senators named in today's press release did not vote with the Bayh/Republican position.

For that reason, Waldman greeted today's news with a big yawn and doesn't seem worried that the Moderate Dems will do anything other than help Bayh show off how "moderate" he is.

The Russians say one should "hope for the best but prepare for the worst." As a Democrat who wants President Obama to succeed, I hope Waldman is right and the "Moderate Dems" are just using Bayh to bolster their "centrist" image.

On the other hand, if Bayh's group develops along the path envisioned by Yglesias, which I consider more likely, then Democrats really should prepare for the worst in 2010. The severe recession may make next year a tough environment for the president's party to begin with. If Democrats carrying water for corporate interests sink "the change we need," Democratic base turnout could drop significantly, as it did in 1994. Most of the Moderate Dems Working Group members will not face the voters until 2012 and 2014, but their obstruction could harm many other Congressional Democrats.

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Tell me more about the Accountability Now PAC

The Accountability Now PAC announced its arrival today:

"We need members of Congress to leave the bubble of Washington, D.C. and stand with their constituents," said Jane Hamsher, founder of Firedoglake.com and co-founder of Accountability Now. "We need members of Congress to ask the tough questions about continued Wall Street bailouts that reward the donor class, two wars without seeming end, the ceaseless assault on our civil liberties, and other issues that separate the citizenry from the DC cocoon."

"Accountability Now is an organization built around a single guiding principle: challenging the institutional power structures that make it so easy, so consequence-free for Congress to open up the government coffers for looting by corporate America while people across the country are losing their jobs and their basic constitutional rights while unable to afford basic health care," said Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com and co-founder of Accountability Now. "Accountability Now believes that members of Congress in both parties need to hear from their constituents, and that nothing focuses the mind of a politician on listening to citizens better than a primary."

"Accountability Now PAC will recruit, coordinate, and support primary challenges against vulnerable Congressional incumbents who have become more responsive to corporate America than to their constituents," said Accountability Now's new Executive Director, Jeff Hauser. "By empowering the grassroots, Accountability Now will help create the political space needed to enable President Obama to make good on the many progressive policies he campaigned on - such as getting out of Iraq, ensuring access to affordable health care for every man, woman and child, restoring our constitutional liberties and ending torture."

In 2007, grassroots activists banded together to oust Al Wynn out of office, and it shook House Democrats to their core. Similarly, we learned in 2006 how even a primary challenge that does not win could change behavior, as Jane Harman has been more accountable to the concerns of her constituents after a tough primary race against Marcy Winograd.

Out of these recent lessons, diverse and politically powerful groups have decided to support Accountability Now's efforts, such as MoveOn, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), DailyKos, ColorOfChange.org, and Democracy for America, 21st Century Democrats and BlogPAC.

On principle, I agree with the goals of this PAC. Like some guy once said, "the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It's rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits. [...] We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats [...]"

However, I won't get excited about the Accountability Now PAC until I learn more about the criteria it will use to determine which Democratic incumbents are "bad enough" to be primaried, and which primary challengers are "good enough" to be endorsed.

To my knowledge, Democracy for America was the only organization in the Accountability Now PAC that helped Ed Fallon in last year's primary in Iowa's third district (a D+1 district represented by Blue Dog Leonard Boswell).

How would someone thinking about a primary challenge know whether he or she is likely to get full support, like Donna Edwards in MD-04, or almost nothing, like Fallon?

Speaking of Democracy for America, they have announced the 2009 schedule for their acclaimed two-day training academy. I've never attended one of these, but I have heard great things about the program. My fellow Iowa blogger noneed4thneed has signed up for this weekend's DFA academy in Des Moines.

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Kuttner: Disarm Deficit Hawks w/Universal Healthcare

In today's Washington Post, public policy wonk Robert Kuttner, who's also co-editor of American Prospect Magazine and the author of  "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency," tells us about "The Deficit Hawks' Attack on Our Entitlements."

This snippet pretty much sums up his thoughts today:


...The economy we bequeath to our children has everything to do with getting growth back on track and almost nothing to do with imagined future deficits.

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Diaries

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