- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Heritage Foundation, seeing new opportunities to advance its conservative agenda in next year’s Democratic Congress, wants to talk with Democratic leaders about where they might find common ground.

The prospect of the conservative think tank, whose ideas fueled President Reagan’s policies in the 1980s, sitting down with some of the Democrats’ most liberal leaders to discuss taxes, spending and health care might sound far-fetched in the immediate aftermath of a bitter midterm election. But a senior Heritage official says, “We are actively soliciting a chance to sit down and discuss our ideas with them,” and Democrats say they are more than willing to get together.

Letters seeking a meeting for a frank exchange of ideas quietly began going out this week to a number of House and Senate Democratic leaders, including incoming House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and prospective Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel.

Mr. Rangel “thinks it’s a great idea,” said a spokesman for the New York Democrat. “He wants to hear different opinions because Congress functions best when you have more views expressed. Working for that middle ground is one of his priorities.”

Heritage is not alone in thinking that some longtime adversaries of Democrats can have an effect on legislation in Congress next year. Advocacy groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), say that potential alliances between some of the Democrats’ newly enlarged centrist blocs, including the “Blue Dogs” and the so-called “New Democrats,” could open up opportunities for them to move some legislation in their direction.

“Because both parties now will want to take accomplishments to the voters two years from now, it’s going to force a new way of doing business in Washington,” said Jay Timmons, senior vice president for policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“We’re the eternal optimists here. We believe there is a chance to move a free-market, smaller-government agenda forward in this environment. Many of the incoming [Democratic] members won their seats on the appeal that I would characterize as one of limited government,” said Michael Franc, Heritage’s vice president of government relations.

“They talked of no tax increases on the middle class, they wanted a balanced budget, and they embraced the pay-as-you-go idea that, if you focus on the spending side, can be a wonderful discipline,” Mr. Franc said. “Conservatives should not approach this new arrangement with an immediate confrontational posture.”

The NFIB, the small-business lobby, similarly expresses cautious optimism that it might be able to win some support in Congress for its agenda on health, tax and regulatory issues, but not on the Democrats’ plans to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, which business groups say they have no chance of blocking.

“There are definitely challenges posed by the new Congress, but opportunities as well. You have a lot of new Democratic members who ran as moderates or conservatives who are on record saying we need to do something for small businesses,” said NFIB chief spokesman Michael Donohue.

Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says that on some issues such as spending, the more centrist House Blue Dog Democrat caucus, which claims 44 members next year, and the New Democrat Coalition, which will have 62 members, could be a formidable force on key votes.

“How many Blue Dog Democrats do you know who subscribe to [incoming House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s views? None would be the answer,” Mr. Josten said.

But veteran tax-cut lobbyist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, doesn’t see much chance that Democrats will help pass any of the conservative agenda.

“Tort reform? Nothing the trial lawyers do not want will pass. Labor-law reform?” Mr. Norquist said. “The unions own the Blue Dogs. They will vote against free-trade agreements because the unions tell them to. If you can’t cross the trial lawyers or labor unions, on what issues are these Democrats supposed to be moderate?”

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