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Archive for Sunday, January 9, 2005

Freshmen will find middle ground elusive in U.S. House

January 9, 2005

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— One of them is a 67-year-old Republican from Michigan; the other, a 31-year-old Democrat from Oklahoma. But when they were sworn in last Tuesday along with 39 other first-time members of the House of Representatives, Joe Schwarz and Dan Boren already were well acquainted.

During the freshman orientation program, Schwarz, a Republican physician from Battle Creek and veteran of the CIA, had approached the youthful Boren and told him how much he admired the young man's father, former Oklahoma Democratic Sen. David Boren, for his work as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Without knowing of this budding cross-party friendship, I had picked these two men to visit on the opening day of Congress -- mainly because of their contrasting politics. Schwarz is an avowed moderate in an overwhelmingly conservative party; Boren is one of the most conservative Democrats in their leftward-leaning caucus. The center has been eroding for years in the House of Representatives. Its survival depends on the election of new members like Schwarz and Boren.

For all their differences, they share one bond: Both are products of their state legislatures, a background they have in common with 19 other members of the freshman class. That more than half the newcomers have this experience is significant. It means they are familiar with the give-and-take of the legislative process and the need for compromise.

Schwarz, who was in the state Senate for 15 years and served as its president pro tem for part of that time, said he had been warned before arriving in Washington that the atmosphere in the Capitol was "less than friendly."

"I hope we can restore some of the camaraderie I knew in Lansing," he said. "It does no good to be eternally at war with the other party."

But Schwarz has to walk a narrow line when cooperating with Democrats. He has been a maverick in Michigan, leading Sen. John McCain's successful "outsider" campaign in the 2000 presidential primary and then unsuccessfully challenging the party establishment's choice in the 2002 primary for governor.

This year, he won an open-seat Republican primary for Congress with just 28 percent of the vote, as five more conservative candidates split the remainder. Hans Schuler, his campaign treasurer, said as he waited for Schwarz to take the oath that the new congressman will have to remember those numbers as he charts his course. "Joe will certainly be challenged again in the '06 primary. The ultra-conservatives are saying that. He will not back off his beliefs, but he will have to do a lot of reaching out."

Boren, like Schwarz, had his toughest race in his primary. When the Democratic incumbent in rural "Little Dixie" ran for the Senate, Boren decided after just one term in the state House of Representatives to take on a former county prosecutor, a woman endorsed by EMILY's List, the feminist PAC, and much of organized labor. Boren ran to her right, stressing his opposition to gun control, abortion and gay marriage.

He won the primary by a wide margin and breezed in November, despite Bush carrying the district by a landslide. His concern, Boren said, as friends and supporters from home nodded in agreement, is that "unless national party leadership changes its tone, it's just a matter of time until my district will go Republican, just like the rest of Oklahoma. If the Democratic Party doesn't change course, they'll drag us all down."

Boren is clearly ready to give Bush his vote on many issues, including the sharp limits on lawsuits the president has put high on his agenda. And he, like Schwarz, decries the partisanship he senses in Washington. He told the Tulsa World a few weeks ago that "when I was in the Legislature, many times three or four Democrats, three or four Republicans would go to dinner as friends. It seems here there is a complete firewall between the two parties."

But Boren draws the line on cooperating with White House plans to overhaul Social Security. "We have a lot of people who depend on Social Security," he said, "and I don't see the need to tear that up."

Judy Goad, the district Democratic chairman, said she agreed, citing families who had seen their nest egg of personal savings shrink badly in the 2000 stock market downturn. "Democrats have to protect the people who depend on Social Security," she said, drawing a line in the sand that may resist any political pressure the White House can apply.

Joe Schwarz and Dan Boren are just beginning to learn how complicated their lives will be, as they try to find common ground without incurring the wrath of their constituents or party leaders.

-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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