Middle of the Road

One needs but a glance at Tuesday night’s vote to impose a ban on late-term abortions in only the District of Columbia to understand why Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH) abruptly announced his retirement from the House of Representatives this week.

LaTourette is a moderate Republican who represents a district in a swing state which voted for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) over President Obama by 700 votes in 2008. LaTourette rode to Washington during the seminal 1994 election which installed the first GOP House majority in more than 40 years. A top lieutenant to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), LaTourette often presides over the chamber during important floor debates.

But the northeast Ohio Republican cashed all of that in this week – much to the surprise of many of his colleagues. LaTourette had mulled the decision for weeks. Boehner even phoned LaTourette Monday night to ask his Buckeye state colleague to reconsider.

No dice.

And LaTourette says the most significant piece of legislation to hit the House floor on Tuesday is emblematic of why he’s decided to step aside.

The marquee measure on the House docket Tuesday was the “District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.” Crafted by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), the package would outlaw all abortions after 20 weeks – only in the federal city.

Of course, some may wonder just how and why lawmakers could levy such a decree on a particular jurisdiction, yet exclude the rest of the country.

“Because they can,” explained Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), the city’s non-voting regent to the House. “When this bill goes to the floor, every member will be deciding what happens in the District of Columbia – except for the District of Columbia.”

DC isn’t a state or a commonwealth. So Norton is a proxy on Capitol Hill. Her duties are just like any other Member of Congress – except she can’t vote on the House floor.

It goes like this:

Since the 19th Century, Congress served as a super city council for Washington. It made the laws. It appropriated the money. You name it. But in 1973, Congress awarded the city “home rule.” That meant DC could govern itself via an elected mayor and city council. Still, Congress retained ultimate oversight powers over the District. And periodically, Congress has meddled in municipal affairs. In fact, the House Oversight Committee even dedicates a subcommittee to keep tabs on the District. But of late, Congress generally keeps the city at arms-length. It’s refused to get involved as a series of political scandals which rocked city hall. Former council member Harry Thomas Jr. is set to serve more then three years in jail after pleading guilty to stealing from the city coffers. DC Council Chairman Kwame Brown resigned after federal prosecutors charged him with bank fraud. There’s now a probe into the campaign of Mayor Vincent Gray.

But there’s been no Congressional intervention nor does anyone expect there to be.

It’s a different story with abortion.

On Tuesday, Franks engineered a vote outlawing all forms of late-term abortion in the capital. Of course, Congress couldn’t tailor such an effort to any other political subdivision. But Congress has agency over the District of Columbia.

“The bullies usually pick on the District,” moaned Norton. “And this time they picked on the women of the District of Columbia.”

“The majority of this House, the conservatives, can think of nothing better to do than continue to wage a war against women and take our time up with these divisive issues?” wondered Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

“This bill only applies to the District of Columbia,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). “Which some members on the other side of the aisle appear to view as a colony.”

After a heated debate, the House voted on the DC late-term abortion measure. 220 members voted yea. 154 voted nay. But even a 66 vote margin wasn’t enough to pass the bill.

That’s because the House treated Frank’s package as what’s called a “suspension.” Suspension bills do just that. They “suspend” the usual rules and limit the amount of debate time. But suspension measures must command two-thirds of all yea votes to pass. In this case, the House needed 251 yeas to approve Franks’ bill. So it fell way short.

“Seldom does the District win a vote on the floor of the House this big,” boasted Norton afterwards.

But the story of this vote didn’t lie in the 220 ayes or the 154 noes. One could distill this vote into two amber “P’s” which appeared on the House chamber tally board. Either a green “Y” or a red “N” stood next to the names of nearly all lawmakers. Except for the names of Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-NY) and Steven LaTourette.

On the House scoreboard, “P” stands for “present.” It means a member took a pass on a vote. They were there. They voted. But they didn’t take an official position.

Sometimes a member votes present due to a conflict of interest. So they opt out – without failing to cast a ballot. Members of the Ethics Committee almost always vote present when the House considers an ethics issue. Freshman Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) votes present if he doesn’t think a bill meets constitutional muster.

But that wasn’t the case Tuesday night with both LaTourette and Hayworth. They both voted present to make a point.

“This was a statement that you should exercise discretion as a Congress…this is a deeply personal issue,” said Hayworth. “(Citizens of Washington) need to have autonomy over their reproductive decisions.”

Hayworth is only a freshman from a swing district just outside New York in the Hudson River Valley. So she hasn’t taken many votes like the late-term abortion ban.

But for an nine-term veteran like LaTourette, this vote crystallized all that’s wrong with Congress.

“So we now we’ve voted 33 times to repeal Obamacare…anybody in our district who doesn’t know where we are on the Second Amendment and right to life and Obamacare is not paying attention,” said LaTourette. “It’s time to quit making political statements and posturing and get something done.”

LaTourette said Congress takes many votes just to dare lawmakers to vote one way or the other. And it begins to weed out lawmakers in the middle like him.

“The guys who are in the bright blue districts and the bright red districts just sit back and let the slaughter take place. And the swing districts, because of their nature, tend to be represented by people who are a little more moderate. It’s tough.”

This isn’t the first time LaTourette’s bucked his party on big votes. In March of last year, LaTourette was one of only seven Republicans to vote against striking federal dollars for public broadcasting. In June, LaTourette was one of only two Republicans who voted against a contempt of Congress citation for Attorney General Eric Holder over the botched Fast and Furious operation.

LaTourette says polarization is paralyzing Congress. And the measure to ban late-term abortions in the District of Columbia exemplifies that.

With LaTourette’s retirement, there will be few lawmakers of either party in the middle. Moderate Republicans who voted against the abortion ban included Reps. Charlie Bass (R-NH), Judy Biggert (R-IL), Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) and Bob Dold (R-IL). All face tough re-elections. Meantime, the ranks of moderate to conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats are withering, too. Reps. Dan Boren (D-OK), Mike Ross (D-AR), Jerry Costello (D-IL) and Heath Shuler (D-NC) are retiring. Reps. Jim Matheson (D-UT), Mike McIntyre (D-NC) and Larry Kissell (D-NC) are in challenging contests.

There just won’t be many centrists left.

A few months ago, revered political scientists Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein published the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” They argue it’s no wonder that lawmakers like LaTourette head for the exits.

“Those Republicans who are part of the problem-solving caucus have had the door locked so they can’t get into the caucus. And if they try to get in, they will find their hands chopped off by the Club for Growth in a primary challenge or through ostracism in their own conference,” proffered Ornstein during a recent appearance on Capitol Hill.

LaTourette is precisely the type of figure Ornstein spoke of.

Last summer, Boehner dispatched LaTourette to the Senate as an emissary to settle a feud over a stalled Federal Aviation Administration measure. LaTourette also grew increasingly frustrated this summer as a major transportation bill languished in a legislative cul-de-sac, unable to generate the necessary votes to pass.

“We’re talking about building roads and bridges for Chrissakes,” LaTourette groused. “I have reached the conclusion that the atmosphere today and the reality that exists in the House of Representatives no longer encourages the finding of common ground.”

This phenomenon was never more evident than two other issues floating around Capitol Hill on Tuesday. In the early afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Boehner announced a six-month accord to avoid a government shutdown in September. This comes after the sides came within minutes of shuttering the entire federal government in the spring of 2011.

“Harry Reid and John Boehner have done it again,” blasted Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. “This is not leadership and the American people are fed up with your unwillingness to address the financial issues that are plaguing this country.”

By Tuesday night, the House Republican leadership scrapped efforts to pass a five-year farm bill before the August recess. Lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum stymied the legislation. Conservatives don’t think the overall cost of the package shaves enough spending. Liberals are insulted by the deep cuts to food stamps. Members of Congress don’t want to head home for the August recess without okaying a farm bill and some drought aid. So as a saving grace, the House resorted to a narrow, $383 million livestock/drought assistance bill.

The stopgap package failed to impress Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

“I don’t think we’ll have a disaster package at the end of the week that will be law,” said Peterson, skeptical of Senate action.

Peterson suggested the drought-specific bill was nothing more than a fig leaf for lawmakers fretting about facing angry farmers as crops wither in the August sun.

“It won’t work. They’re still going to catch hell (for not finishing the big farm bill),” Peterson said.

Brawls over basic issues like these have exasperated the LaTourette’s of the world. And from his vantage point, there may be one factor which could resuscitate bipartisanship in Congress. But things have to get worse first.

“It’s like an alcoholic,” LaTourette said. “Maybe a light bulb will go off. But they need to hit rock-bottom.”

– Cristina Marcos contributed to this report.