Who are the real Blue Dogs?
The question irks leaders of the fiscally conservative coalition of House Democrats, which made solid gains in 2008 and now includes 49 members. Every one of them is sincerely committed to reducing the federal deficit, they say. Of the 49, however, only six of them voted against President Obama’s $789 billion economic stimulus package despite their stated, laser-like focus on balancing the budget.
Obama’s plan, by his own acknowledgment, will increase the deficit in the short term by roughly $200 billion. (Another five Blue Dogs who had opposed Obama’s original plan switched to “yes” votes on the final version).
Obama is working to court Blue Dogs. The president invited them to the White House on Feb. 10 and focused their hour-long meeting on curbing federal spending rather than boosting the deficit. “We feel like he is committed to fiscal responsibility,” Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), one of the Blue Dogs who switched to ultimately support the president’s plan, told reporters after the meeting.
Blue Dogs claim Obama’s recent promise to cut the deficit in half by 2012 is a result of their efforts. “This week alone, President Obama is doing more to address the serious long-term fiscal problems facing our country than former President Bush and his congressional allies did during his entire 8-year tenure in office,” said Blue Dog Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.).
Still, some Blue Dogs say their relations with House Democratic leaders frayed during the stimulus negotiations, mostly because many Blue Dog demands were ignored. “I got in terrible trouble with our leadership because they don't care what's in the bill; they just want it to pass and they want it to be unanimous,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog with particularly tense ties to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, told a Nashville radio station in early February. “We're just told how to vote. We're treated like mushrooms most of the time.”
So, will the Blue Dogs cling to their traditional colors, or will they be swallowed up by red ink? The answer to that question could depend largely on how aggressively these six “real” Blue Dogs push back against their party’s leaders.
Here’s a look at the “real” Blue Dogs of Capitol Hill:
Bobby Bright (Ala.): Bright, a farmer and former mayor of Montgomery, Ala., voted against both versions of the bill, saying there was too much spending and not enough stimulus in the bill. He complained that his party’s congressional leaders “rushed” the bill through Congress “with little debate or opportunity to offer meaningful changes.” And as a result, he said, his constituents overwhelmingly oppose it. Bright said his constituents “have little faith” that the bill “will be worth its tremendous” price tag. “I share their concerns,” he added. John McCain carried Bright’s district by 27 points last November, roughly the same margin as George W. Bush scored in 2000 and 2004, according to vote totals compiled by Swing State Project.
Parker Griffith (Ala.): Griffith, a former state senator from northern Alabama, said his vote was a “difficult but very thoughtful decision.” He said he had been willing to support a bill that included tax cuts, job creation and infrastructure projects. “But as the package went through the legislative process, it soon became apparent that this would be a spending bill without the necessary provisions to jump start our economy,” he said. McCain carried Griffith’s district by 23 points, roughly the same as Bush’s performance in 2000 and 2004, according to Swing State Project.
Walter Minnick (Idaho): Minnick, a local businessman from western Idaho, voted against the plan because, he said, it can’t work until the country’s banking and financial industries are back on their feet. As an example, he cited funds in the plan devoted to infrastructure projects. Without access to loans from cash-strapped banks, he said, contractors can’t obtain lines of credit to buy equipment they need to begin work on projects. Minnick, who offered a scaled-down $200 billion stimulus as an alternative, said he didn’t mind being one of only 11 Democrats to vote against the plan. “My job is to represent Idaho and to do what's best for this country, and that's more important than party lines,” he told local reporters. McCain carried Minnick’s district by 22 points, but that marks a sharp decline for the GOP ticket over the past eight years. In 2000, Bush carried the district by 40 points.
Collin Peterson (Minn.): Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he could support spending for infrastructure improvements, but not for tax cuts that only add to the federal deficit. “I just could not get there – I could not borrow money to give people tax cuts," he told local supporters in Bemidji, Minn., a few days after the vote. “We have a $2.2 trillion backlog in infrastructure. If they had put that $800 billion into infrastructure, into unemployment insurance, gave people health care who lost their jobs, and into food stamps, I would have borrowed the money and done that.” McCain carried Peterson’s district by just 3 points. Bush carried the district by double digits in both 2000 and 2004.
Heath Shuler (N.C.): Shuler, a former Washington Redskins quarterback, who’s eying a possible challenge to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in 2010, criticized his party’s leaders for failing to work across the aisle on the stimulus bill. "In order for us to get the confidence of America, it has to be done in a bipartisan way," he told Salon. "We have to have everyone – Democrats and Republicans standing on the stage with the administration – saying, ‘We got something done that was efficient, stimulating and timely.'” (To this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman had a ready response: “Let me get this straight - this is coming from a guy who threw more than twice as many interceptions than touchdowns?” quipped Reid spokesman Jim Manley). McCain won Shuler’s district by 5 points, a sharp decline for Republicans since 2000. At that time, Bush beat Gore there by 18 points.
Gene Taylor (Miss.): Taylor, dean of the Blue Dog caucus and arguably the most conservative member of the House Democratic caucus, said he simply couldn’t support a stimulus bill that spiked the deficit. “We will have to borrow every penny of the $789 billion,” he fumed after the House vote. “Our children and grandchildren will be forced to pay it all back with interest.” As Taylor noted, “$789 billion is an enormous amount – As much debt as the nation borrowed in our first 203 years, from the revolutionary war to the beginning of Jimmy Carter’s Presidency in 1978.” McCain trounced Obama in Taylor’s district, winning by 36 points. That margin is roughly unchanged from the past two presidential elections
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