Opposition to House Tax Bill Not Limited to Traditional Liberal Districts

BY Lee Banville  December 14, 2010 at 3:40 PM EST

Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md.; file photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call via Getty Images

Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md.; Roll Call/Getty Images file photo

Although House Democratic leaders said they would not block the compromise tax cuts bill from reaching the floor, it may reveal growing opposition from both representatives of traditional liberal districts and more middle-income districts where the politics are changing.

House leaders cautioned Monday that clearing the way for a House vote did not mean the debate within the caucus was over.

“As the Democratic caucus said, this bill in its current form is unacceptable,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., told MSNBC. “It will come to the floor of the House in some form, and it will be open to changes.”

Much of the focus will be on a 35 percent cap on the tax rate for estates worth more than $5 million. It also reflects continuing unease within the Democratic caucus over the bill.

The “just say no” shouting episode at the Democratic caucus drew much of the attention, but just who supported that move is less clear since there is no roll call vote among the party members. Still, we get some insight into the challenge the leadership will have guiding the bill through the lower house from a letter sent by 54 members to Speaker Pelosi last week.

Understanding the Opposition

The letter, drafted by Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, chastised the president for backing off his initial proposal that did not include tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year.

“We support extending tax cuts in full to 98 percent of American taxpayers, as the President initially proposed. He should not back down. Nor should we,” the Democrats wrote.

Welch was joined by 53 colleagues, including Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who helped lead the Democratic caucus revolt last week. The group clearly felt the White House had cut the deal behind their backs.

“We had a representative in the room bargaining, while the deal was being cut somewhere else,” DeFazio told The New York Times.

However, an interview with Welch published Tuesday afternoon revealed that he felt efforts to modify the compromise package were futile, saying the “die is cast.”

While House Democrats were clearly frustrated by the negotiation, Mark Shields on Friday said the opposition runs deeper than that.

“The protest is authentic. It is based on both the means by which it was done, but, more importantly, the substance of it,” he said.

A Battle for the Shifting Middle

So who are the public protesters? A look at the signers of the Welch letter offers some obvious answers, but also some potentially troubling ones for the White House.

Using our Patchwork Nation district types, there are clear types of representatives that are coming out of the gate opposed to the president’s efforts. Both those from the Old and New Diversity districts have been quick to denounce the tax deal they see as benefiting the wealthiest.

Eighteen of the signers of the letter come from those two district types. These areas are solid Democratic districts and many of these representatives face only token opposition in their re-election efforts. Their fight, if there would be one, would be in the Democratic primaries and so for many of these Democrats, like Steve Cohen from Tennessee or Judy Chu from California, there may be more danger in voting for a bill seen as a compromise with Republicans.

But perhaps the more interesting group is the large number of representatives from the Shifting Middle – middle-income districts in established suburbs and midsized cities. Of the 54 Democratic rebels, 19 come from these districts and could reflect a more moderate pocket of opposition to the tax bill in the House.

Unlike the Democratic strongholds in the diversity districts, the Shifting Middle has been more of a battleground in recent elections. These voters are less partisan and more practical and that perception has driven support for government policies by its representatives. More than 60 percent of these House members backed both the stimulus bill and the health care reform effort.

Many of the opponents from this district type come from more competitive areas. For example, Arizona’s Raul Grijalva survived the 2010 midterm even though he garnered less than 50 percent of the vote.

These Shifting Middle districts are, for the most part, not the safe seats where the typical liberal opposition to a Democratic president may be found. They are areas that are struggling economically but largely avoided the housing crisis that has plagued other parts of the country.

The politics of these remain murky in the wake of the 2010 midterms – Democrats lost seats here, but not nearly as badly as in other district types — but they remain places (and therefore politicians) in flux.

From the last week of Democratic infighting, it is clear that the liberal districts will take the lead in fighting the president’s compromise. But how a major swath of representatives from the politically shifting middle income districts come down in this debate could foreshadow where some of the major policy debates will play out, not simply for this lame duck session, but in a GOP-run House next year.