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Blue Dog Democrats Wield Newfound Clout

Tuesday, 18 Nov 2008 06:54 PM

By John Mercurio

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The left may still be crowing about its resounding Election Day victory, but it’s the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats who are emerging as a significant force in the upcoming Congress.

The influential Blue Dog coalition of House Democrats saw their ranks increase on Election Day, and they’re likely to gain even greater power on Capitol Hill with an ally in the White House.

Just a few days after his victory, President-elect Barack Obama tapped his chief economic adviser, Jason Furman, to consult regularly with the Blue Dog leadership on economic issues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, acknowledged the new power of centrists when she said, a few days after her party gained at least 20 House seats, that “the country must be governed from the middle.”

Blue Dogs, for their part, say they’ll hold Obama’s feet to the fire.

“President-elect Obama has consistently talked about restoring fiscal responsibility to government," noted Rep. Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat and co-chairman of the Blue Dog Democrats, who will number 51 or 52 seats in the 111th Congress (depending on one unresolved race in Louisiana).

That’s up from 49 this year and equals roughly one-fifth of the Democratic House membership. Four of the 10 candidates the Blue Dogs endorsed this year won. While southern Democrats still dominate the group, Blue Dogs expanded their reach in Blue States this year, winning a new seat in Maryland and holding seven seats in California and three in New York.

Still, there are clouds on the horizon. Despite her pledges to hew to the political center, Pelosi faces pressures from many factions: the Blue Dogs versus fiscal progressives who are eager to expand government programs. Meanwhile there are groups divided along racial and ethnic lines, such as the Congressional Black Caucus; and the Out of Iraq Caucus, which wants the war to end immediately.

Even more daunting is the fiscal reality that awaits Obama and the 111th Congress in January: A soaring deficit and an economy entering a recession, in which many of the country’s top job-producing industries are collapsing. Obama has already signaled his support for a multi-billion-dollar plan to help bail out the nation’s foundering auto industry, a plan that, while perhaps necessary, would send the $1 trillion-plus deficit soaring even higher.

The first sign that Blue Dogs are reassessing their top priority, the House’s pay-as-you-go rules, came recently when one of the leading members of the coalition, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, said Obama may not be subjected to the “pay-go” rules the Democrats established when they regained control of the House two years ago. “I'm not sure the old rules are relevant anymore,” Cooper said in an interview with Dow Jones. “It would be unfair to the new president to put him in a budget straightjacket.”

Cooper said his comments were taken out of context. “Blue Dog Democrats are not backsliding,” he wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. “We fight legislation that is not paid for and, although our record is not perfect, are batting well over .750. With more Blue Dogs elected to Congress this year, we hope to hit even more.”

But analysts say Blue Dogs do find themselves operating these days in an drastically different environment, one in which their top goal of balanced budgeting becomes a lesser priority for recession-fearing lawmakers. “This is the point at which Disneyland meets reality. Both Obama and John McCain were in Disneyland promising new programs and tax cuts. But we happen to be bankrupt with a global recession and massive debt and no clear prospects for a quick recovery,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “So how is it possible to do all these proposed programs and yet remain faithful to the Blue Dog philosophy? It isn’t. And I don’t think anyone thinks it is.”

Sabato said Blue Dogs could hold considerably less sway next year because “they’re not in a position to set the agenda.”

“They have to see what Obama does and react to it,” he added. “They want to vote for what he wants to see happen and then, six months from now, start complaining vigorously if the national fiscal house is still deteriorating.”

Blue Dog advisers said the coalition’s influence will increase, but that the current economic downturn may force them to revise their definition of “pay-go”. As they did in the 1990s, lawmakers may write the rule to allow an exception for financial emergencies, during which the federal government is allowed to spend more freely. “It’s all a matter of defining pay-go. We’re going to have to define pay-go going into the new Congress, and that’s yet to be determined,” said a Blue Dog aide. “It does mean ‘pay as you go,’ but there are different ways to do that.”

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