- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

H-326, the ancient conference room on the third floor of the U.S. Capitol, sits just down the hallway from the Rotunda. The regal old room contains a massive conference table that easily accommodates 30 people. Its ornate wooden frame is complicated and hard — just like the task confronting the lawmakers and staff crowded around it today.

Welcome to the Thursday morning House Republican Whip meeting, a place that personifies persuasion and GOP lawmakers “grow the vote” by building coalitions on the legislative agenda.

Yet, if your only window into this historic room is the jaded view provided by The Washington Post or The New York Times, this column may be hazardous to your conventional wisdom. The House of Representatives, according to many media accounts, has devolved into the kingdom of partisanship, where all the Republicans line up against a united Democratic front, producing a chronic case of legislative lockjaw. Republicans are aided and abetted in this project by their corporate titan friends — the so-called K Street community — who give cash and counsel to feed the GOP beast.

This view of the world may fit the biases and ideology of muckraking “wanna-be’s,” but it keeps colliding with an ornery obstacle — the facts. What actually happens in H-326 is quite different.

First, while some high-profile issues pitted all the Republicans against most of the Democrats in the first six months of the 108th Congress, many other issues passed the House — not by narrow partisan margins — but with significant bipartisan majorities. For example, on at least six major pieces of legislation, such as class-action reform, medical liability improvements, bankruptcy abuse prevention, death tax repeal, energy security and associated health plans (making it easier for small businesses to offer health insurance), an average of 43 Democrats voted for the legislation. Even more impressive is that, although each of the 2002 versions of these bills was eventually killed by the then-Democratically controlled Senate, the House passed the same legislation this year with substantially more Democratic votes.

House Republican whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, leads this vote-harvesting effort, assisted by Chief Deputy Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, and Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican.

These three, along with a host of deputy and regional whips and Ohio Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce’s Republican Conference Coalitions team, work hard to “grow the vote” — a termed coined by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, when he was Mr. Blunt’s predecessor as Republican Whip.

Another misconception is that these lawmakers work exclusively with Republicans. Indeed, the Republican Whip operation cajoles, persuades and educates its own, but they also spend a significant amount of time “growing the vote” by enlisting Democratic support through outside groups with shared legislative interests. Few appreciate the effort devoted by the Whip organization aimed at wooing support from business-friendly Democratic lawmakers. “There’s a misperception we only work with Republicans,” a House Republican leadership aide said. “Actually, with our friends in the business community, it’s a very bipartisan effort.”

It might also surprise some that the Republican Whip organization works with Democratic lobbyists. “There are a number of Democratic lobbyists we call upon regularly to help us persuade members of their own party to vote for these bills,” a GOP leadership aide said.

As a result, the ideological rigidity of the House Democratic leadership often puts their rank-in-file members in an extremely awkward position. The choice for many Democrats is between supporting leadership positions developed in coordination with liberal Washington-based interest groups or major employers and small businesses in their districts.

Sometimes, the cross-pressures are so great that the Democratic leadership decides to forgo formal persuasion efforts. “We’ve noticed that when the ‘pro-business’ Democrats feel lots of pressure from back home in their districts, their leadership does not whip the issue,” a House Republican leadership aide said.

In addition to the bipartisan legislation passed this year, there will be additional opportunities for moderate Democrats to join Republicans in the months ahead. Trade, select appropriations bills and legislation aimed at easing consumers’ ability to get credit are all areas ripe to grow bipartisan support.

Tax legislation and Medicare prescription drugs generated massive partisan fights in the House this year, pitting almost all the Republicans against most of the Democrats. These battles, unfortunately, overshadowed a host of other issues where Republicans mobilized support from moderate Democrats. Many would like to paint a picture of the House as a place of unbridled partisanship — and no doubt in many ways it is and should be a partisan institution. Yet, a peek behind the door of H-326 tells a more complete story and reveals some bipartisan surprises.

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