When Kurt Schrader was first sworn into the House of Representatives, in 2009, there were 255 Democrats, against 188 when he began his fourth term last week. The membership of the Blue Dogs, a caucus of moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats that Schrader now co-chairs, has shriveled from 54 to 14.
Still, the Oregon Democrat sees the possibility of having an impact, on a principle he picked up before getting to Washington.
“When I was in the legislature,” Schrader recalls, “(Senate President) Peter Courtney would say, if a bill is 60 to 70 percent good, try to find a way to vote for it.”
The question is how often, even for a Democrat trying to work with the Republicans, that question will come up.
Last week, Speaker John Boehner made a point of sounding conciliatory, and the question of whether he might sometime need some Democrats hung open. A record 25 Republicans voted against Boehner as insufficiently conservative – although there are now so many Republicans in the House that he was elected anyway – and Republicans actually lost the session’s first House vote, coming up short of the two-thirds needed.
And by Schrader’s count, the 14 Blue Dogs can be bolstered by the 40-member New Democrat caucus. The group, says
Schrader, is “a balance to the Elizabeth Warrens of the world,” referring to the Massachusetts senator who’s become the idol of the other end of the party. In the House, it’s “a way to show we’re not all like Nancy (Pelosi, the minority leader).”
On the other hand, if this Congress turns into a partisan battle between the Republican leadership of the two houses and President Obama, “We’ll sustain most of the president’s vetoes.”
But Schrader, whose hopes are fed by a new slot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee (joining Oregon’s sole congressional Republican, Greg Walden), thinks something more productive could happen.
“My feel from back home in Oregon is they’re tired of gridlock, and want us to work together,” he says. “If it’s reasonable, we’ll support it.”
As an example of an opportunity, he cites tax reform, pointing out that both the president and the Republican leadership – along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee – have said it’s a priority.
Of course, everybody’s interested in tax reform – but everybody means something different by it.
Schrader sees a particular opportunity for one of his Oregon priorities, the proposal he developed with Walden and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio to increase logging on the federal O&C lands, dividing the huge, scattered area into sections that would be permanently protected and sections to be managed by the state for timber production. Last year, the proposal passed the House but was declared dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate, on the grounds that federal land should not be put under state control.
Schrader hopes for a “much friendlier environment” for the idea in the new Republican Senate. Moreover, he insists, the land would still be “controlled by the federal government, but managed by a consortium named by the state.”
Even with Senate Republican support, there’s still the option of a Democratic filibuster, and perhaps more likely a presidential veto.
Every congressional session lately begins with solemn pledges of bipartisan productivity, just as every campaign begins with commitments to stay positive, and in both cases things then get very nasty very quickly. By Thursday, Boehner was promising a full-on attack through the budget process on President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, an approach likely to unite virtually all surviving congressional Democrats, even those most eager to craft a separate identity.
It’s hard to imagine any Democrats from Oregon, or from anywhere on the West Coast, joining an assault on the president on immigration.
But Schrader’s efforts to find a role distinct from the House Democratic leadership has a point beyond legislative output, or the more likely lack of much. Back in his freshman term, when there were 54 members of the Blue Dog caucus, it not only meant a somewhat different balance to the House Democrats, it meant that they had a majority. The deep Democratic losses of 2010, and the additional losses of 2014, came largely in swing districts (now somewhat less swingy after the 2011 reapportionment) largely represented by Blue Dogs.
“The path to the majority for Democrats,” points out Schrader, “is electing more moderate members.”
At the start of a new session, it’s good to have a new seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
It’s better to be in the majority.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oreegonian, 1/11/15.