Rahm Emanuel is performing a balancing act. As chairman of the Democratic Caucus, he must keep the peace among the House majority. At the same time, he is trying to reinvigorate his own New Democrat faction now that its leading issue is off the table.
Emanuel – a former White House aide, a third-term lawmaker from Chicago and a leading member of the New Democrat Coalition – is nudging the group toward a pro-business agenda with a technology focus. That puts the group at odds with more-liberal Democrats and, on the other end of the political spectrum, out of step with the more conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
Emanuel points to the March election of Bill Foster, a fellow Illinois Democrat, as evidence that New Democrats are on a good course.
Foster campaigned on more federal incentives for research, tougher border security, flexibility on skilled-worker visas and funding for Illinois research laboratories in his effort to succeed former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. (1999-2007).
“You have to have a strategy on workforce. You have to have a strategy on resources for labs. You have to have a strategy on the tax code,” Emanuel said. “You have to have a comprehensive approach.”
For the 58 members of the New Democrats, that means regrouping around Silicon Valley priorities after capitulating to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in the recent Colombia trade fight.
Foster has signed up as a New Democrat, as has another midterm replacement, Andr?? Carson of Indiana, and 16 of the 42 Democrats first elected in 2006. That group is sometimes called “Rahm’s class” in recognition of his work as former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Emanuel said Wednesday he is helping to negotiate a proposal to both tighten border security and expand the number of H-1B visas for foreign skilled workers. He also has been trying to salvage a $9 billion extension of the research and development tax credit.
Both efforts are difficult. Liberal Democrats favor a more comprehensive approach to immigration, and the Blue Dogs insist on revenue-raising offsets for the cost of any tax breaks.
Emanuel wants the New Democrats to adopt promotion of electronic health records as a signature issue, despite the reservations of some Democrats who view the effort as threatening patient privacy.
He also has been emphasizing incentives to fast-growing industries such as high technology, biotechnology, financial services and online businesses.
Group in Search of an Agenda
New Democrats Look Beyond Trade Fights
It’s not clear that New Democrats are united behind a Silicon Valley agenda – even if it’s generally acknowledged the group is ready for a new direction.
“They don’t have as much of a unifying theme anymore,” said James P. Moran of Virginia, who founded the coalition in 1997 with other free-trade proponents, including former Reps. Cal Dooley of California (1991-2005) and Tim Roemer of Indiana (1991-2003).
“New Democrats no longer really stand for trade or for a balanced budget,” Moran added.
“We are not a one-trick pony,” said the group’s current chairwoman, Ellen O. Tauscher of California. “Trade was one of the things New Democrats worked on initially, 10 years ago. But we have matured, and we have broadened our base.”
Jon Hoganson, a director of government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, agrees. “On a lot of high- tech issues, they have helped push us over the finish line,” the Silicon Valley lobbyist said. “I don’t think Colombia is going to leave a long-term sour taste.”
While working for President Bill Clinton, Emanuel lobbied Democrats to support implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (PL 103-465) in 1993. Moran said that victory inspired New Democrats to organize four years later.
Now, Emanuel argues that New Democrats must look beyond trade fights to longer range objectives and alliances. He even makes a case for working with moderate Republicans on occasion.
Given the aggressiveness with which he campaigned on behalf of the Democrats who ousted moderate Republicans, including Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut (1983-2007) and E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida (1981-2007), Emanuel had to do something extra to show remaining GOP centrists that he was interested in any bipartisan activity.
He has hosted a regular centrists’ night out with New Democrat allies – including Adam Smith of Washington and Allyson Y. Schwartz of Pennsylvania – and a select group of House Republicans including Fred Upton of Michigan, Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Pat Tiberi of Ohio and Ray LaHood of Illinois.
Emanuel said he wants to build bipartisan support for some items on the Democratic majority’s agenda, including a second economic stimulus package, increased funding for research and education, incentives for savings and energy-efficient technology and support for health information technology.
Castle and LaHood described the pay-your-own-tab dinners at posh restaurants like Les Halles, a French steakhouse, as opportunities for frank and informal discussions. “We have some things in common with New Democrats. There are things we can work on together,” Castle said.
But Mark Steven Kirk, R-Ill., who is not part of Emanuel’s dinner klatch, raises an eyebrow at the entire effort.
“He’s trying to get a few Republicans to sign off on bills, onesies and twosies,” Kirk said. “If you’re going to really build a caucus or a bipartisan group, you can’t be an elected party leader. The whole purpose of building a group is independence.”