News Column

Ill. Democrats Face Challenge of Serving in US House Minority

Nov. 8, 2012

Bill Ruthhart, Duaa Eldeib and Dan Hinkel

The three suburban Democrats elected to Congress will head to a U.S. House still controlled by Republicans and face the challenge of tailoring their votes to swing districts where they'll face re-election in two years without a top-of-the-ballot bump from President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, North Shore businessman Brad Schneider and Harvard-educated physicist Bill Foster recognized their victories have them on the cusp of serving in the minority of a chamber that remains bitterly divided.

But each expressed optimism that they could play a role in bridging that divide by seeking compromise.

"I know there are wonderful people on both sides of the aisle who want to get to work," said Duckworth, who will represent the northwest suburban 8th District. "I'm going to find those people, and I'm going to say, 'Hey, let's get together, let's do this because it's about this nation, and it's so much bigger than any one of us.'"

Duckworth, a national political celebrity, said she had identified Republican lawmakers she would seek out. Whether she's able to make that work remains to be seen, but the outlook is a stark contrast to the approach of the guy she defeated -- firebrand tea party freshman Joe Walsh, known for saying he didn't "go along to get along."

The new Democrats could find themselves at the center of a swirling debate as Congress tries to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff by reaching a major compromise on taxes and spending. Republican House Speaker John Boehner signaled Wednesday that he would like to extend the Dec. 31 deadline for Bush-era tax cuts to expire, which would push the debate into next year when the new class of lawmakers takes office.

Foster, the only one of the three to previously serve in Congress, said he would be well-positioned to help reach such a deal. The self-described moderate voted against Democratic budgets and Obama's cap-and-trade policy but backed stimulus funding and the Affordable Care Act.

"One of the most important things that has to happen in the next few months is the grand compromise that the president refers to," said Foster, who will represent the west and southwest suburban 11th District. "In the end, it will work best for the country if it is stitched together with a coalition of centrists from both sides of the aisle."

Foster also said he'd likely spend just as much of the next two years playing defense against what he expects will be a flurry of "gotcha" attempts by Republican leadership.

"Very often the leadership will throw votes designed to cause grief for the other party, and we may see a blizzard of those," said Foster, who represented a district serving the far west suburbs and beyond before losing in the GOP wave of 2010.

"When they start putting those votes in front of you, deliberately targeting you and your district, then those are the times you have to think defensively," Foster added.

Schneider said he plans to legislate the way he ran -- as a consensus-builder willing to cross the aisle. His district doesn't give him much of a choice. With his narrow win Tuesday night, he will become the first Democrat to represent the North Shore in more than three decades. The 10th District is known for moderate views and split-ticket voting.

During the campaign, Schneider struggled to name a position on which he disagreed with his party. On Wednesday he said he looked forward to working with Republicans. Asked how, Schneider pointed to his business consulting experience, saying it made him an expert at dropping into contentious situations and bridging disparate interests. The wealthy political rookie from Deerfield said he was optimistic about the chances of avoiding two more years of legislative gridlock.

"I know it's not going to be easy," Schneider said, "but that doesn't mean you don't work hard to make it happen."

For the gridlock to ease -- and for any of the three to accomplish much legislatively -- Republicans will have to change their approach, Foster said.

"The Republicans' avowed strategy for the last four years was to try to undercut everything the president was doing with the idea of denying him a second term, but now that strategy has clearly failed," Foster said. "I think some will sense that, and we may see some fraction of the Republican Party come to the table."

Duckworth heads to Washington known for her life story and for defeating Walsh. Asked whether her status would earn her extra points in Washington, Duckworth said she wasn't sure. "I'm willing to use every tool in my toolbox to get the job done for the people of my district," she said.

Foster spent the day unwinding at his Naperville condo, where neighbors had placed a handwritten "Congratulations" sign on his door. As his cellphone rang every few minutes with congratulatory calls, Foster still was stunned by the 58 percent of the vote he captured against seven-term Republican Rep. Judy Biggert.

"Our polling, like everyone else's, indicated the race was tied, so we were just running scared the whole time," said Foster, who indicated he's considering trying to return to the House Financial Services Committee. "It's going to take a good week of looking through the data to figure out what actually happened here."

Schneider said it was too soon for him to say what committee assignments he might prefer, but before running for office he lobbied on a volunteer basis for organizations that push for Israeli security.

"What I really hope to do is understand where I can have the greatest impact," whether that is related to foreign policy otherwise, Schneider said while having tea at a Northbrook restaurant.

Schneider and Duckworth agreed that the voters' message was simple: They're tired of partisanship paralyzing Congress.

"I think that we all live in this messy middle, and I think people just were disgusted that nothing was happening and this ideological purity was trying to take hold," Duckworth said. "It's nice to have causes you believe in, but that's not how people live their lives. People are just trying to feed their families, keep a job ... and have a good future for themselves and their families."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2012 the Chicago Tribune

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