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Dems Turn to Center

As Democrats prepare their agenda for the next Congress, party leaders are attempting a delicate balancing act, seeking to assure party faithful that they are not planning a shift to the right, while crafting a legislative program that has a chance of becoming law — and that does not alienate newly acquired moderate voters.

In early meetings, House Democrats have agreed largely on what party leaders tout as their legislative agenda for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress. The agenda underlines fiscal responsibility and middle-class benefits such as student loans, while steering clear of controversial issues that do not have a chance of gaining bipartisan approval.

The 29 Jewish Democrats in the House, who make up some 12.5% of the Democratic caucus, have a particularly delicate balance to maintain, symbolically representing a constituency that is well to the left of the electorate at large, but is deeply concerned about terrorism and the Middle East.

“The Jewish community, which tends to be more liberal, will see that those among us who hold liberal views will continue to work on issues related to their agenda,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, the longest-serving Jewish member and dean of the informal Jewish members’ caucus.

At the same time, Waxman cautioned, liberal hopes of sweeping legislative change “have great limitations, because of the Senate filibuster and the presidential veto. We would like to do more on prescription drug benefits, for example, but it will be difficult due to the many obstacles.”

“Our main goal is to achieve a real record with the voters in the next two years,” said a congressional staffer who asked not to be identified. “The Republicans want us to fall, and that will only happen if we move too fast with a liberal agenda.”

Thorniest of all is the issue of Iraq, which the administration — and many Jewish groups — presents as a touchstone of the struggle against Islamic extremism. Democrats see unhappiness with the war as the top reason for their win last month, but they have been unable to agree on an alternative policy.

Conventional wisdom in the capital suggests that the election produced a more centrist Democratic caucus in the House, symbolized by the growth of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats. The Blue Dogs gained nine new members last month, bringing their total to 44. They are still far from becoming the party’s leading ideological group, but many observers see the rise of moderate Democrats as a cursor pointing to the route the party is about to take in Congress.

“This was a victory for the center in both parties. The pendulum has landed exactly in the middle,” said New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, one of the few Jewish lawmakers affiliated with the Blue Dog Coalition. During this year’s campaign, Israel was chosen to lead the Democrats’ campaign on national security issues and was in charge of conveying a message of strong support for the State of Israel to the Jewish community.

Still, liberals insist that the party did not suddenly turn conservative. Even after the election, they note, the left-liberal Progressive Caucus is the biggest single faction among House Democrats. Moreover, liberal Democrats fared well in most races they ran. “It is a misreading of the political map to claim that the party has shifted to the center,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. Nadler, who places himself on the liberal side of the Democratic spectrum, said he “feels perfectly comfortable with where the party is” after the elections.

Another sign pointed out by congressional staffers as proof that Democrats aren’t going centrist is the blow dealt to conservative Rep. Jane Harman of California, who lost her bid for chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Harman’s fellow Blue Dog Democrats wrote to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker, urging her to give Harman the job, but Pelosi refused.

Harman is Jewish, but Jewish members did not rally behind her as a group, dividing their support among various contenders along ideological and regional lines. Pelosi ended up tapping Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, a former Border Guard officer, to head the intelligence panel.

According to exit polls, Jews voted Democratic in higher proportions than any other ethnic or religious group except for blacks. Recent surveys suggest that Jews are closer to the liberal pole of the Democratic spectrum and that they have not undergone a swing toward the center of the political map, despite repeated predictions by conservative groups.

Congressional sources stress that in Democratic caucus meetings held after the elections, there were no signs of dispute over the agenda proposed by the party leadership for the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress.

In crafting the agenda, Democrats put an emphasis on social issues relating to the middle class and the needy. Top goals, they say, include cutting interest on federally funded student loans, funding stem-cell research and lowering costs of Medicare drugs by enabling the government to negotiate prices.

Other priority issues include ethics reform, implementation of the 9-11 Commission Report and increased oversight on presidential authority regarding surveillance and eavesdropping. “These are all legislative issues that are close to the Jewish community,” Israel said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a liberal Jew or a conservative Jew — you still want us to adopt the 9/11 Commission recommendations.”

But other issues, seen as hot-button, socially divisive topics, will not be high on the Democratic legislative agenda. Same-sex marriage, school choice and abortion are not seen as issues on which the Democrats can make progress, and they will be largely left aside, insiders say.

Democratic strategist Jim Gerstein ran focus groups in 14 congressional districts leading up to this year’s elections and examined the voters’ reactions to these issues. He found that they did not evoke the same reaction as in previous elections. “The so-called values issues were not part of the elections,” Gerstein said. “The country does not want a huge fight on these issues now. That’s not what Congress was sent to do.”

The issue of Iraq, which dominated the elections, is still being debated among Democrats. While some lawmakers argue that the administration has begun to recognize the need to change course on Iraq and that it will have to cooperate with the Democrats, they also admit they have no agreed plan of action. Ideas range from increased congressional oversight over the war’s conduct to a direct call for setting a withdrawal timetable. But so far, none of the suggestions has become a legislative policy of the Democratic caucus.

“I don’t think we can all unite over one policy regarding Iraq, but there is a growing consensus that it is a disastrous situation and that the administration’s policy causes instability in the entire region,” said Waxman, who will be leading congressional investigations on the issue as chairman of the Government Reform Committee, the main House investigative body.

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