Delegation spans Democratic divide

Rep. Jim Himes, the 4th District freshman Democrat, says he’s found a little extra fat in the federal agriculture budget, about $470 million that Congress could trim to demonstrate fiscal austerity.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District and chair of the powerful spending panel that divvies up agriculture funds, is less than enthusiastic about this latest legislative proposal from her home-state colleague.

It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that these two members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation have parted ways. In fact, even though all five House members from the state are Democrats, they fall along an ideological continuum that reflects broader national divisions within the party.

DeLauro and Himes, 8-2-10

Reps. Jim Himes and Rosa DeLauro: Across the Democratic spectrum (Deirdre Shesgreen)

Himes is a pro-business, free-trader eager to demonstrate his independence from party leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as he faces his first re-election battle since his narrow 2008 victory. DeLauro, meanwhile, is a vocal and proud progressive who has Pelosi’s ear, along with a powerful perch atop the agriculture spending subcommittee and, most likely, an easy run for an 11th term.

While Himes and DeLauro may be outliers on the delegation’s political spectrum, Connecticut’s three other members of the House-Reps. John Larson, Joe Courtney, and Chris Murphy-usually find themselves somewhere in between.

Kenneth Dautrich, a public policy professor at the University of Connecticut, said the divisions are not surprising given that Connecticut has historically sent a mix of Republicans and Democrats to Congress. Although the delegation is all Democratic now, he said, these lawmakers still represent a politically diverse set of voters.

And while Larson and DeLauro are in very safe seats, Dautrich added, the other three have to “constantly worry about what the next election is going to bring” and so have to exercise political caution in Washington.

Of course, none of the state’s House members are real renegades, and these are small degrees of difference. They all vote with their party more than 90 percent of the time-and most of them do so close to 100 percent, according to a running tally by the Washington Post.

But some interesting fault lines have emerged in recent months-over everything Wall Street reform to the war in Afghanistan-that illustrate a liberal-centrist split.

Last week, for example, Larson and DeLauro, both part of a faction of liberal Democrats unhappy with the direction of the Afghanistan conflict, voted against a $59 billion bill to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Murphy also voted no, but less because of concerns about the war than because the measure was labeled “emergency spending” and so was not paid for. Himes and Courtney voted in favor of the measure.

Similarly, earlier this month, although all five lawmakers voted in favor of requiring the president to provide Congress with an exit strategy and a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, only Larson and DeLauro supported a more far-reaching proposal that would have restricted use of the war funds only to draw down U.S. forces, not for further military combat.

On Wall Street reform, Himes worked with other centrist Democrats to push for a softer set of derivative regulations, while Larson and DeLauro were vocal in pressing for a stronger clampdown on those risky bets. (Courtney also favored the tighter regulations, although he was not closely involved in the negotiations, nor was Murphy, who did not press his case with either side in the debate.)

Another split came in May, when the House took up a stimulus-related bill that included Medicaid funding for states, an extension of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers, and other measures. Himes and Murphy, citing fiscal concerns, voted against the bill, while DeLauro, Courtney and Larson all favored it.

These and other differences may become more pronounced in the coming months, as the election draws closer and vulnerable incumbents seek to position themselves for re-election.

“They’re in campaign mode right now,” Dautrich said, “And there’s a wave coming.” He said that doesn’t mean lawmakers are being disingenuous about their positions, but they need to show voters that they haven’t strayed from their home-state roots.

Himes, in particular, faces a tightrope in his politically-divided district, which includes Bridgeport as well as wealthy New York City suburbs.

“It’s the kind of seat where, if you are a Republican, you are going to be in trouble if you are associated with the social right, and if you are a Democrat, you’re going to be in trouble if you are associated with the economic left,” Dautrich said. Himes needs show that to “he’s not one of those guys who is going to out and ring up a big tab” in Washington.

Indeed, Himes plans to spend part of his August break holding town hall meetings on the federal deficit. And the most recent example of a break within the delegation came last week, when Himes joined with three other freshmen to form a new coalition focused on cutting the federal budget. The group put forward a package of spending cuts and other measures that they said would save about $70 billion over the next decade.

“We hold the leadership of both parties responsible for perhaps not being as aggressive as they should” in putting the federal fiscal house in order, Himes said at a news conference unveiling the new group, the Spending Cuts and Deficit Reduction Working Group. “This is a moment to put some specifics on the table.”

Himes touted a set of agriculture-related cuts, which he said would save $469 million in 2011 and as much as $6 billion over the next ten years.  His target list included ending subsidies that help cotton and peanut producers cover their commodity storage costs and nixing grants to makers of worsted wool fabrics.

Budget hawks say many of these proposals have been tried before and gone nowhere, and there’s little to suggest this year will be any different. “These cuts are a lot easier said than done,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates for responsible fiscal policies. “The interests that fought to get them into the budget are going to fight like heck to keep them there.”

As for whether these cuts seemed to be more political posturing than substantive legislating, Bixby said such efforts were important and could eventually lead to fruition, albeit probably not in this Congress. But, he added, “it doesn’t take a lot of political courage for a congressman from Connecticut to go after cotton subsidies.”

Himes defended his proposed cuts as a good starting point for a serious debate over Washington’s spending habits. And he said they have already sparked fierce opposition from entrenched Washington interests inside and outside Congress. At the end of last week, House Democratic leaders pressed Himes and his colleagues to drop plans to offer some of their cuts as an amendment to a transportation-housing spending bill. Instead, the freshmen voted for a GOP proposal that aimed to trim some of the same funding from the bill.

Certainly, members of the House and Senate spending committees are unlikely to take up these suggestions anytime soon. DeLauro, who has purview over some of the spending items Himes targeted, declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, she sounded lukewarm about Himes’ proposal, saying that they should be “looked at closely” but that lawmakers needed to pay as much attention to stimulating the economy as to cutting spending.

“The recovery of our economy depends not only on getting our country’s debt under control, but also in creating jobs and opportunities for the millions of American workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” DeLauro said.

Whether these cuts go anywhere or not, by proposing them, Himes more firmly aligned himself with a group of centrist Democrats, called the New Democrat Coalition, a pro-business, free trade-oriented group of lawmakers.

The New Democrats have become more vocal in their concerns about federal spending in recent months, as polls show growing public concern about the deficit, projected to hit $1.47 trillion this year. Earlier this year, Himes and Murphy both said they would only support a budget that had, in aggregate, a 1 percent cut in spending.

That proposal went nowhere with the House leadership, which has sided more with liberals like DeLauro and Larson, the 4th ranking Democratic House leader, in promoting increased spending as a way to reinvigorate the economy. “I’ve come down in favor of more infrastructure,” Larson said, whether that’s roads, bridges, or new technology for schools. That’s the best way to create new jobs, he said, and it’s not inconsistent with the New Democrat agenda.

Larson, too, is a member of the New Democrats, although as a House leader, he doesn’t have time to participate in their weekly meetings. He said he’s drawn to their focus on technology as a driver of job growth, even if he doesn’t always vote with them on other issues.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition, said he views himself as a pragmatic centrist on spending and other issues. Asked why he didn’t sign on to the 1 percent budget cutting proposal, he said he prefers to examine spending decisions in a broader context so that competing priorities can be taken into account. “Personally, I like more detail in how you get there,” he said.

Himes and Murphy said their votes on fiscal issues are not election-year political posturing. Himes noted, for example, that he voted against another stimulus proposal back in December, long before the election season started to heat up.

These votes highlight substantive policy differences, Murphy said, adding that centrist Democrats have been able to curb the leadership’s inclinations toward bigger budgets. He noted that even though House Democrats did not embrace the 1 percent budget cut, they did produce a spending blueprint that sliced about $7 billion from the White House’s 2011 request.

Murphy shrugged off a question about his political leanings relative to other members of the delegation. “There’s an over-emphasis in Washington with trying to put people in ideological boxes,” he said. “I just think we all represent our districts, and my district tends to be fiscally conservative.”

Himes echoed that, saying politics only plays a role in that he is reflecting 4th District voters’ concerns.

“My constituents are looking for independence,” he said. “For those of us who won in 2006 or 2008 in swing districts, it would be politically foolish for us to be knee-jerk ideologues in any direction.”