The Loyalists

All the focus on the lockstep Congressional Republican opposition to President Obama's economic recovery has overshadowed an equally striking development: Congressional Democrats are uniting much more comprehensively around Obama's early agenda than they did around Bill Clinton's.

So far, the experiences of Obama and Clinton are similar in one respect. Not a single House or Senate Republican voted for Clinton's economic agenda in 1993, either on initial passage or when it returned to each chamber from a House-Senate conference committee. Every House Republican opposed Obama's plan when it initially cleared the House last month and just three Senate Republicans backed it when it cleared the chamber on Tuesday. Obama might gain a few House Republicans when the chamber considers the final bill this week, but almost certainly not enough to change the overall picture of preponderant GOP opposition.


But Obama's experience with Congressional Democrats is notably different than Clinton's.  In the initial House vote on Obama's plan last month, 244 House Democrats sided with the president and just 11 opposed him. That's a marked improvement over Clinton's performance with House Democrats during the key votes on his economic agenda. In the initial vote on Clinton's plan, 38 House Democrats voted no (compared to 218 who supported him). After conference with the Senate, the final version of Clinton's plan passed the House that August with a bare minimum of 218 votes-largely because 41 Democrats voted no. That means almost 96% of House Democrats voted with Obama on his economic agenda, compared to the roughly 85% who supported Clinton on both the first and second round.

The contrast is equally stark in the Senate. All 58 Senate Democrats backed Obama's economic plan. By contrast, six Democratic Senators voted against Clinton's plan on both initial and final passage; those defections meant that the plan reached Clinton's desk only after Vice President Al Gore cast a tie-breaking vote on August 5, 1993.


Congressional Democrats are displaying comparable levels of unity on other early Obama priorities. Every Senate Democrat voted for both the expansion of the children's health insurance program for the working poor, and the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Act making it easier to bring sex discrimination lawsuits. All but two House Democrats voted for the insurance expansion (on both initial and final passage) and all but five backed the Ledbetter Act.

All of that contrasts again with the divisions that plagued Clinton and Congressional Democrats. In both 1993 and 1994, House and Senate Democrats voted together around 85% of the time (according to the annual calculations from our friends at Congressional Quarterly), with the disagreements most likely to erupt on the biggest issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the crime bill. Fissures among the Democrats were a key reason Clinton's health care legislation never reached a floor vote in either chamber.


Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, formerly chief of staff for House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, offers several reasons why Democrats united more effectively for Obama's economic plan than Clinton's. For one thing, Obama won a stronger victory than Clinton, who managed just 43% of the vote in 1992's three way race; Obama's package also cut taxes, rather than raised them, as Clinton's did to close the deficit he inherited from George H.W. Bush.


Two other structural factors may be at least as important in the change. One is the evolving nature of the Democratic caucus, especially in the House, as the electorate has ideologically resorted over the past generation. That "great sorting-out" has reduced the number of conservative Southern Democrats most likely to vote against the party majority during the Clinton era and added more Democrats from centrist non-Southern suburban districts more in tune with the party's overall thrust. "It's a different demographic," Elmendorf says. "In 1993, before the 1994 election, we had a lot more southern, a lot more rural, a lot more conservative Democrats than we do now. We have some, but to the extent has party has grown it has grown in the more affluent suburbs, so the kind of Democrat we have is more likely to be supportive of the party than the boll weevils we had in 1993-94 who were frequently looking for an opportunity to [vote against] the party."


Tom Bonier, targeting director at the liberal National Committee for an Effective Congress notes that while the House Democratic caucus is almost as exactly as large now (257) as it was in 1993 (259), over that intervening period the party has lost 22 Southern and Border state seats and gained 21 everywhere else. "You had a lot more Democrats representing very Republican districts in conservative Southern and border state regions then and you don't have that now to the same extent," he says. Likewise, Democrats hold about the same number of Senate seats now (58 or 59, depending on Minnesota's final outcome) as they did in 1993 (57), but fewer are in the South. All of that suggests the party is more cohesive partly because more of its members are representing comparable constituencies and operating with common electoral incentives.


The other factor reflected in the early Democratic unity is a long-term shift in the Capitol Hill culture that has diminished the tolerance for defection in both parties. The level of party unity among both House and Senate members has increased in each party under every president since the 1970s (again according to CQ figures). When Henry Waxman overthrew John Dingell as House Energy and Commerce chairman earlier this year partly because of concern that Dingell would resist the party majority's climate change legislation, it sent legislators a vivid reminder that they are living in an era when advancement is increasingly linked to loyalty.

On other issues, Democrats may experience sharper differences. Energy and climate change may divide them by region and health care could split them ideologically-leaving Obama with some of the same headaches Clinton faced. But the decades-long trend toward greater party unity and a more parliamentary-style of legislating-on both sides-seems irreversible.