Democrats, several of them Californians, were 'Party of No' in House budget fight

Democrats in competitive districts formed largest bloc of 'no' voters in last month's House budget debate

As a parade of budget proposals whizzed through Congress this year, Rep. Ami Bera and 30 other lawmakers voted, at the very least, consistently.

No on the four Republican budget plans. No on the Democratic alternative. No on the Black Caucus budget. No on the Progressive Caucus budget.

The Elk Grove Democrat's rejections came just a few months after he campaigned aggressively on a platform of improving the way Congress functions, including running at least four ads highlighting his support for a bill that would strip pay from lawmakers if they failed to pass a budget on time.

He argues that the early votes don't quite matter, and suggests that his own party's spending plans are just as partisan — and thus unacceptable — as the opposition's.

"If you look at each of the budgets, they really are political budgets," said Bera, who faced one of the toughest elections in the country last year. "They're not a compromise."

Republicans are usually cast as the "Party of No" in today's Congress. But it was Democrats like Bera in competitive electoral environments who formed the largest bloc of "no" voters during last month's budget debate, the first opportunity lawmakers had this year to weigh in on the crucial taxing and spending battles ahead.

A Republican proposal — cutting social safety-net programs, lowering tax rates and raising spending on defense — eventually passed along mostly party lines, 228 to 199, setting the stage for negotiations with the Senate.

Among those voting against seven budgets were 20 Democrats and 11 Republicans. They included Republicans such as Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, one of the House's most conservative members, and Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, a strongly antiwar lawmaker who often opposes his party on military matters. Other "no" voters on both sides of the aisle tended to hold more centrist views, come from competitive voting districts, or both.

California, home to the largest delegation, also had the most members who voted no on everything.

Bera is one of an endangered species in the House, coming from a district that is closely fought between Democrats and Republicans. His plight shows the difficulty such members face in an increasingly partisan Congress, where most lawmakers come from districts with little mandate to compromise.

Three other California Democrats in hotly contested districts — Jim Costa of Fresno, Julia Brownley of Westlake Village and Scott Peters of San Diego — also cast "no" votes across the board on the budget proposals. A fifth member from California, Raul Ruiz of Palm Desert, missed the votes because his wife gave birth to twins. But Ruiz, who like Bera and Peters ran ads touting "No budget, no pay," said on his congressional website that he would have voted against all of the budget proposals.

Their move did make political sense: Even though the members risk scrutiny for voting against all the budgets, voting yes on any one of them could invite even greater criticism, analysts say.

Moreover, the analysts point out that federal budgets at this point do relatively little to actually guide federal spending. In recent years, because of partisan gridlock and divisions within the Republican majority, Congress has instead relied on a combination of short-term spending plans and mandatory across-the-board cuts. For vulnerable politicians, voting no is almost always safer than voting yes, especially when the policy consequences are not clear.

"If you want to expose yourself unnecessarily, then you could vote yes," said Charlie Gonzales, a former Democratic congressman from Texas. "They all have good stuff, but they all have stuff that they could attack you on."

He added: "The safest vote is to simply be voting for naming a courthouse. But you better hope that that courthouse is in someone else's district."

Bera has pointed out that he previously voted in favor of two spending bills that were compromises between Democrats and Republicans — one that was negotiated after a partial shutdown in December 2013, and a second one in December 2014 to avert a shutdown. He cited his efforts to work with like-minded lawmakers, including Peters, to begin "laying out some broad pillars" toward a bipartisan fiscal agenda.

"We've got to address the debt, the deficit," Bera said. "We've got to make sure we secure Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years. We've got to really have a pro-growth budget. That will come from getting Democrats and Republicans to actually sit down together and negotiate — put our ideas forward."

Voting no on budgets also gives politicians another advantage: It allows them to express support for a broad set of ideas without being held responsible for trade-offs that may come with them.

"You can justify a 'no' vote on just about anything," said Rep. Jeff Denham, a Turlock Republican who is one of the more moderate members of his party. "I think it's important that you actually show leadership and stand up and show what you do support."

Bera and the other four Democrats did not put forward their own budget proposals, something they could have done under the rules of Congress. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, submitted a proposal to restore food stamp cuts, while Rep. Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles Democrat, submitted one to increase spending on ports. Republicans who control the House did not allow votes on either measure, but both representatives were on record promoting their platforms.

"I could have done that. You know I could have done that," Brownley said, when asked why she chose not to propose her own budget amendment. "Would it have been heard, I guess, is the question that I'd have to ask myself."

Peters said writing his own budget would have taken a lot of work, but would not have realistically led to an agreement at this stage. Instead, he said, he is hoping "No budget, no pay" forces lawmakers to craft more realistic spending plans in the months ahead.

"This is going to sort out," he said. "I will be involved in adjusting the course of the ship."

Costa said he was on record for his beliefs in deficit reduction, noting that he was among a bipartisan group of 38 House members who voted in favor of a 2012 bill modeled on a deficit reduction plan co-written by former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton.

"The sad commentary is that most of the budget process in Congress has become dysfunctional," Costa said. "We haven't passed a budget in 12 years, whether Democrats are in control or Republicans are in control."

Costa also pointed to a flaw in all of the budget proposals that came before the House this year: They don't add up. He said many of his colleagues don't convey that inconvenient truth to voters back home.

"So you vote for a budget that is pasted together, on a hope and a prayer that somehow these numbers reflect the real revenues and expenditures of this country," he said. "And they don't."

Twitter: @noahbierman

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