WASHINGTON — — Something unusual happened when the controversy over the nation's health care law erupted again on the floor of the House of Representatives this month: A Maryland Democrat voted with Republicans.
Rep. John Delaney, the state's newest member of Congress, was one of 35 Democrats out of 200 to vote for a Republican proposal to delay a requirement that large businesses offer health coverage to workers. He was the only Democrat from Maryland to do so.
Seven months into his first term, the former Potomac banker has made several moves — some symbolic, others substantive — to chart a centrist course in a Congress that is bitterly divided by partisan politics. The effort, observers say, could be crucial in determining whether he'll win re-election in 2014.
"I've said from the beginning that Obamacare is an imperfect piece of legislation that is designed to do a very important thing for this country," Delaney said of the vote, walking a nuanced line between the bill's ardent supporters and opponents. "It's not perfect, and repealing it is a terrible idea."
Delaney, 50, trounced Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett in last year's election — unseating a 20-year incumbent — though the two developed a friendly rapport during the campaign. The 6th Congressional District, which was redrawn by Democrats in Annapolis in 2011, includes portions of Democrat-heavy Montgomery County as well as Western Maryland, a GOP stronghold.
For now, it's the least blue House district of the seven that Democrats hold in Maryland.
And so Delaney has positioned himself to the right of the rest of the state's congressional delegation. He has split with a majority of Democrats on six major votes on issues such as oil drilling and domestic surveillance. He courted more than a dozen Republicans to co-sponsor a bill to fund infrastructure projects and recently joined a bipartisan "no labels" coalition that is seeking middle ground in Washington.
The effort reflects both his district and his background, said David Wasserman, who follows House races for the Cook Political Report. The nonpartisan analyst rates the 6th District as safe for Democrats.
"Someone as successful and personally wealthy as John Delaney did not come to Congress to kowtow to interest groups, or in particular big labor," said Wasserman, noting that most unions backed a different candidate for the Democratic nomination last year.
This month, Delaney became the only House Democrat to sign on to a proposal to study federal monetary policy — a longtime cause of conservatives. Several Republicans on Capitol Hill said Delaney's business background gives him a sense of authority on debates about the economy and employment.
"He came by and spent a lot of time with me," said Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and deputy majority whip who is co-sponsoring one of Delaney's bills. "I think he's off to a very impressive start. He's bipartisan — a practical guy, a business guy."
Delaney has courted Democrats, too. He's gone door to door to meet with lawmakers about legislation. And shortly after the election, he invited the nearly 50 newly elected Democratic lawmakers to his home for a party, paying to bus them to Montgomery County from Washington.
But two Republicans who have lined up to challenge Delaney next year don't buy all the talk of bipartisanship. Both will be working to define the incumbent as too cozy with Democratic leaders, too eager to vote with his party and too liberal for the 6th District.
Dan Bongino, the former Secret Service agent from Severna Park who announced his candidacy in June, noted that Delaney has repeatedly voted against GOP efforts to repeal or de-fund the Affordable Care Act. He questioned how Delaney can continue to support the law even as its implementation has hit snags.
"I agree he has taken a few moderate votes," said Bongino, who won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate last year but lost the general election to Sen. Ben Cardin. "But that doesn't give you a pass on a major, major policy stance, which is Obamacare. The Obamacare thing is a black-and-white issue."
Another GOP candidate, David E. Vogt III of Brunswick, said recently that Delaney "talks as a moderate but he votes straight party line."
A New Jersey native, Delaney in 2000 founded a successful bank called CapitalSource and led it as CEO for nearly a decade. He is the only former CEO of a publicly traded company in Congress.
"He has ... brought a fresh perspective to Congress and already proven to be an opinion leader, in particular on fiscal issues," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, who has long been close to his party's centrist wing.
Democratic leaders assigned Delaney to the Financial Services Committee and the Joint Economic Committee, which focus on banking policy and the economy, respectively. His fellow first-year Democrats elected him one of four freshman class presidents.
His former career makes him among the wealthiest members of the House. Delaney spent $2.3 million of his own money on the 2012 campaign — a factor that helped to scare off national Republican groups from engaging in the contest.
Though he is no longer officially involved in the company, Delaney remains a major shareholder and is poised to collect tens of millions of dollars under a pending sale of CapitalSource.
Delaney's background in finance also plays a role in his signature legislative effort, introduced in May, to pay for infrastructure improvements. The proposal would allow multinational companies to bring overseas cash back to the United States without paying corporate income tax. In exchange, the companies would buy bonds that would be used to fund highway, energy and other infrastructure projects.
Nineteen Democrats and 19 Republicans have co-sponsored the bill — an even split by design.
The complex bill has landed Delaney attention from national media, including The Wall Street Journal and MSNBC. But the proposal is opposed by several left-leaning groups, including labor unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees as well as the Center for American Progress.
"There are better ways to fund [it] than allowing a nice tax break for these companies," said Thomas Hungerford, a senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. "We all use the infrastructure; we [all] ought to be paying."
Supporters counter that the arrangement has to be attractive for companies or they wouldn't take part. And, they say, allocating taxpayer money to fix the nation's infrastructure woes at a time when Republicans are heavily focused on deficit reduction is not politically practical.
"What he's doing — and he's doing it as a freshman — is he's trying to find a solution," said Patrick Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a group that supports Delaney's bill and would benefit from it. "He's trying to be a leader."
The legislation has not yet received a hearing. A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, one of two committees that might consider the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
The House has taken 28 votes on final passage of legislation this year in which the Democratic caucus has split. Delaney has voted opposite the majority of his party on five of those votes.
The substance of the GOP health care proposal, which received a vote July 17, was not controversial. The Obama administration had already said it intended to delay the employer-coverage requirement until 2015. But most Democrats said the bill was unnecessary. Obama threatened to veto it.
Delaney also supported Republican proposals to loosen banking regulations on foreign transactions and lift a drilling moratorium along the maritime border with Mexico. He backed the GOP agreement in February to raise the nation's debt ceiling, a once-perfunctory vote that has become controversial amid concerns about the nation's debt.
Additionally, he was one of 83 Democrats to oppose an amendment Wednesday that would have curbed the National Security Agency's ability to collect telephone data from Americans. He was joined by three other Maryland Democrats: Hoyer, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
In an interview, Delaney said his work on the infrastructure bill has reinforced the idea that the two parties can find common ground.
"If you approach economic policy with the spirit of compromise, you can actually get good support," he said. "Economic policy is like business — it's all about compromise."