WASHINGTON -- If leopards can't change their spots and tigers can't change their stripes, can 23 Democratic members of Congress convince us they are really Republicans?
Not that they officially want to change parties.
Nobody is sure if the Republican victory last November is a trend or merely one of those spasms of history that come and go like volcanoes.
So these 23 (the Dirty Almost Two Dozen?) have decided to form a coalition of "moderate-to-conservative" Democrats to challenge the mainstream of their own party.
Just what Bill Clinton needed.
The coalition argued for 3 1/2 weeks over what to call themselves and announced yesterday that they had decided on: The Coalition.
Which may be an indication of just how moderate they are.
With the possible exception of Charlie Stenholm of Texas, who already coordinates the Conservative Democratic Forum, hardly any of The Coalition members are well-known outside their own states. (And some are not well-known inside their own states.)
But many have been around for years. Like Ralph Hall from the Red River Valley in Texas, who holds the seat once held for 49 years by Sam Rayburn.
Hall, like Stenholm, is a Democrat who has no trouble voting with Republicans and remains a Democrat largely out of force of habit.
"I have been here for 14 years and I've been voting for issues that have failed for 14 years but have passed within the last few weeks," Hall said at a press conference in the Capitol yesterday. "We've all been invited to join the Republican Party and it's good to be wanted. But we're going to try to pull the Democratic leadership to the middle. We'd rather be respected back home than liked up here."
Bill Clinton, too, started out by trying to pull the Democrats to the middle.
As chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, he was committed to wresting control of the party away from Northeastern liberals and turning it over to Southern moderates.
Now that he is in office, however, it is Clinton's task to hold his party together while at the same time reaching out to those voters who cast Republican ballots last November.
Which is exactly why he doesn't need things like The Coalition, which serves to splinter his party ever further.
Moreover, The Coalition offers a ready-made way for Republicans to
reach out and pick up a convenient bloc of votes to override Clinton vetoes of their legislation.
Which is not how The Coalition was putting it yesterday.
Coalition co-chair Gary Condit of California began by stating what The Coalition was not.
"We are not about changing parties," he said. "We are not hostile to the leadership of either party. We are not stalking horses for the Republicans or for the 'Contract with America.' We're solution-oriented, and not preoccupied with what side of the aisle the solution comes from."
"We are going to do research," Billy Tauzin of Louisiana added. "We are going to join with think tanks and develop party positions on the floor."
The Coalition currently represents only 23 votes out of 435 in the House, but Tauzin made clear they would accept Republicans, too.
"We don't want liberals, though," he said with a laugh.
The hope (some would say fantasy) is that The Coalition will take the extreme positions pursued by the Democratic leadership and the Republican leadership and "move it to the center through The Coalition so it can achieve bipartisan support," said Nathan Deal of Georgia.
But since the Republicans already hold a majority in the House and often don't need bipartisan support, The Coalition will have to win votes through force of logic.
Which is always a risky business in Congress.
Bill Clinton's name was not mentioned by Coalition members at their press conference, until Bill Brewster of Oklahoma, a strong supporter of Clinton in 1992, was asked if he was now trying to send signals to the president.
"I'm not into sending signals," Brewster said. "I have agreed with him on issues and disagreed with him. The president has his job and I have mine. I campaigned hard for him. I felt he was the best man for the job."
Please note the use of the past tense.