For conservative lobbyists, a search for 'common ground'

Donald Lambro

12/7/2006 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The Republican Congress closes shop this month as Democrats prepare to take over the business and the special interests try to figure out what the changeover means for their agendas.

With an army of liberal Democrats assuming power on Capitol Hill, you might think the legislative prospects of conservative-advocacy groups and business lobbies would be bleak next year. But that's not how many of them see it at all.

Politics can make strange bedfellows, and most of these groups say they have long worked both sides of the aisle and they are ready to deal.

Take the conservative Heritage Foundation, for instance. The prospect of the right-wing think tank, whose ideas fueled the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, sitting down with liberal Democrats to talk tax cuts might sound far-fetched in the aftermath of a bitter midterm election. But Heritage officials say they are ready to find some "common ground" with their adversaries.

A senior Heritage official said last week that "we are actively soliciting a chance to sit down and discuss our ideas with them," and some Democrats tell me they are more than willing to listen.

Letters from Heritage seeking a meeting for a frank exchange of ideas were quietly sent out last week to House and Senate Democratic leaders, including incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York, who will become the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

"Let me get back to you," a top Rangel aide said when I told him about Heritage's request. A half hour later, he told me: "(Rangel) thinks it's a great idea. 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."

"We're the eternal optimists here," said Michael Franc, Heritage's vice president of government relations. "We believe there's 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.

"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," Franc continued.

"Conservatives should not approach this new arrangement with an immediate confrontational posture. Rather, we ought to say we have a way to solve these problems, here's what we believe in and give the Democrats an opportunity to accept or reject that other way," he said.

Heritage is not alone in thinking that conservative ideas could possibly have an impact on legislation in the next Congress. Lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business and the National Association of Manufacturers believe potential alliances between newly enlarged Democratic centrist blocs, like the Blue Dogs and the so-called "New Democrats," could open opportunities for them to move some legislation in their direction.

Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobbyist, thinks that on some issues, the Blue Dog 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. "I think there will be issues where Blue Dog Democrats could vote with surviving moderate Republicans and join with the conservative Republican Study Committee caucus on others," Josten told me.

"How many Blue Dogs do you know who subscribe to (soon-to-be House speaker) Nancy Pelosi's views? None would be the answer," he said.

Several advocacy groups I talked to this week think that 2008 election politics will play a role in how the Democrats finesse a number of issues to demonstrate they can get things done in the narrowly divided Congress.

"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, vice president for policies and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers.

"I think we'll see some progress on our issues as Democrats attempt to find common ground among nontraditional allies in preparation for the 2008 elections," he said.

Well, if this sounds like the "audacity of hope" in Barak Obama's new book title, others see little or no chance the Democrats will pass any part of the conservative agenda because they are bought and paid for by the special-interest groups that financed their campaigns.

"Tort reform? Nothing the trial lawyers do not want will pass. Labor-law reform? The unions own the Blue Dogs. They will vote against free-trade agreements because the unions tell them to," said veteran lobbyist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform.

"If you can't cross the trial lawyers or labor unions, on what issues are these Democrats supposed to be moderate?" Norquist said.

As for spending cuts and deficit reduction, "when they say they are against deficits, it means they are for higher taxes," he warned.