Washington – Rep. Jim Himes has not been a stranger to controversy this year, and he’s likely to pop up again at the center of new congressional scuffles.
He angered organized labor but his star rose at the White House when he helped give President Obama the authority he needed to negotiate a new trade pact.
Himes was denied a top Democratic Party job, but a group of centrists he leads may be growing in political clout. And House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who often chafed when Himes, D-4th District, crossed party lines, is likely to depend on the support of centrists like him if Democratic liberals abandon her when she negotiates with the GOP on key issues – especially the nation’s budget.
“Congressman Himes’ thoughtfulness and diligence will continue to be a valued asset to House Democrats’ efforts to advance a budget that invests in America and grows the paychecks of all Americans,” Pelosi said.
To many political analysts, centrists of both parties are a dying breed as congressional districts are increasingly reshaped to favor either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans. Mixed or “swing” districts are on the wane. Even Himes’ district has become less of a tossup and more Democratic through redistricting and the growth of minority groups.
Himes is a co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of about 50 pro-business Democrats. Scott McLean, professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, said it’s tougher for these New Democrats, a group created during President Clinton’s second term, to make a mark now.
“Congress is way more divisive now, and that makes it harder for people who want to go to the middle,” he said. “There are so many louder voices, stronger voices.”
Himes said he hopes the political trend reverses and the number of moderates – from both parties – grows. He also said he believes the Democratic Party has a “big tent” that accepts those who don’t vote a straight party line, while the GOP subjects its members to an ideological litmus test.
“We’re the party of tolerance; we celebrate our diversity,” he said.
Himes and other members of the New Democrat Coalition worked with the GOP to give the president broad authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact among the United States and 11 Pacific Rim countries. In doing so, the lawmaker angered organized labor, which is concerned the agreement will result in U.S. job losses.
Himes responded to criticisms of his vote by saying, “I do an enormous amount of work to determine what is best for my district.”
Himes also often splits with other members of the Connecticut congressional delegation, all Democrats, on defense spending. By seeking some cuts to military spending, Himes votes with other Democrats more often that his Connecticut colleagues, who represent districts that are home to large defense contractors, such as Electric Boat and United Technologies’ Sikorsky Aircraft and Pratt & Whitney.
Even as their numbers have shrunk, the remaining moderates of both parties may be key players in efforts to resolve several looming crises this fall, including any federal shutdown in October. Coalition members see opportunities to assert themselves in coming fights over a massive highway bill and an increase in the debt ceiling.
These are all areas where House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has had a tough time fashioning legislation that can pass with only GOP votes because his party’s conservatives often reject compromises.
Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said New Democrats have a limited role in the budget-making process simply because they aren’t in the majority. Republican House leaders and the White House will do most of the negotiating, he said.
“But it’s possible that the New Democrats could get involved if a larger compromise deal arises…and House Republicans decide to seek out the help of some moderate Democrats in the House as a part of putting together a budget,” Skelley said.
Himes cautioned that any help New Democrats give the GOP will come at a price.
“We New Dems don’t exist for the purpose of compromising with Republicans,” he said. “To negotiate we need to know they will be reasonable.”
Any compromise budget would have to include an increase in funding for some New Democrat priorities, including infrastructure, education and scientific research, Himes said.
For example, Himes said the New Democrats may use their “creativity and policy chops” to push reauthorization of a highway bill that would keep transportation money flowing to the states after the end of October.
In July, Himes and other New Democrats wrote to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Pelosi urging them to replenish the dwindling highway trust fund by taxing money U.S. corporations keep overseas.
Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, and Elizabeth Esty-D-5th District, also signed the letter.
No ideological fights
Himes, 49, is a former investment banker who defeated a Republican, former Rep. Christopher Shays, to win the 4th District seat in 2008.
His knowledge of Wall Street served him well in securing a slot on the House Financial Services Committee, a good perch from which to serve his constituents, many of whom work for banks and investment firms.
His understanding of Wall Street also led him to support a couple of GOP-favored changes in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, which infuriated Pelosi and other Democrats and led liberal groups to lobby against his candidacy to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Himes had earned the job of DCCC treasurer through his fundraising prowess, but Pelosi didn’t choose him for the organization’s top job. That went to Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who rarely crossed party lines.
Himes’ political future seems secure, McLean said, even as he has attracted a challenger in state Rep. John Shaban of Redding, 51.
Himes has already become a “bundler,” one of dozens of “Hillblazers” who have each helped raise at least $100,000 for Hillary Clinton. Once again, Himes has used his ability to raise political cash in a wealthy district to help other Democrats and boost himself up the party’s ladder.
“He’s right at the crossroads of a lot of things,” McLean said, and if Clinton fails to win the nomination, “Himes can always say, ‘I back the person who is the Democratic nominee.”
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who co-chairs the New Democrats Coalition with Himes, calls the Connecticut lawmaker “pragmatic.”
“He focuses on what can be accomplished, he doesn’t get into ideological fights,” Kind said.
Kind said the New Democrats organize a policy lunch meeting every Wednesday and hold smaller “policy coffees” throughout the week.
Obama administration officials are often invited to these events – last week’s lunch featured Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Kind said a priority for the New Democrats is to find a way to prevent a government shutdown, which would occur if House Republicans don’t agree to a short-term extension of current federal funding past Sept. 30.
Conservative Republicans insists the extension include the defunding of Planned Parenthood, which would force Senate Democrats to filibuster the short-term budget bill.
A similar scenario played out two years ago, when conservative Republicans insisted a budget bill defund the Affordable Care Act.
The government shut down for 16 days. Eventually Democrats helped Boehner push a bipartisan, two-year compromise through the House, and it passed the Senate. But that budget compromise will expire at the end of the month.
When it comes to the threat of a shutdown, Himes, said it would be blamed on the GOP and “would be a politically unwise thing to do.”
Pelosi appreciates that.
“With another Republican government shutdown looming and an infrastructure funding deadline on the horizon, Congressman Himes has amplified Democrats’ call for bipartisan solutions, not empty ideological grandstanding,” Pelosi said.
Recently, Himes showed off his budget wonkishness by tweeting a yellowed photo of a newspaper article in the National Archives. Written by Alexander Hamilton in 1790, it detailed the new nation’s debt “down to the penny!”