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Blue Dogs Believe Their Day Is Here

While there are plenty of indications that the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition’s cache is expanding on Capitol Hill — an invitation to the White House, regular meetings with the Speaker, plum committee assignments — one lawmaker found perhaps the most telling affirmation far from Capitol Hill and closer to the produce aisle.

“I’ve been in grocery stores and people come up and say, ‘I see you belong to that Blue Dog group,’ and I had no idea they would even know what the group is, but it really has taken on some added importance,” said Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), the coalition’s policy chairman.

In fact, members of the Blue Dogs are anything but reticent about their growing influence within the new Democratic majority, as the moderate lawmakers — who now number nearly four dozen, the largest contingent in the group’s 12-year history — seek to maximize their impact in the House following the power switch in the 110th Congress.

On a recent weekday afternoon, leaders of the moderate group gathered in the office of Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the coalition’s communications chairman, to discuss their place in the new majority, as well as their aims for the 110th Congress. In addition to Ross and Moore, the group included Democratic Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.), the group’s administration chairman, Stephanie Herseth (S.D.), the group’s whip, and John Tanner (Tenn.), a co-founder of the Blue Dogs and a current co-chairman of its political action committee.

“I think one of the things that’s different now, I think there was a time when Blue Dogs were looked at by some Democrats as though perhaps they weren’t really Democrats and I think that’s no longer the case,” Ross said.

“I think people are recognizing that not only do we represent the middle, which is where we believe the American people are and certainly where we are, I think people within our own Caucus now recognize that we have created the majority and that we have done some pretty heavy lifting as a group to ensure that Democrats did regain a majority.”

Pointing to their own growth since the 1996 elections, the Blue Dogs note that their members have captured 24 seats from incumbent Republicans, including those now held by Moore, Ross and Herseth — a tactic the group saw magnified in the 2006 cycle when House Democrats won contests in a number of moderate and conservative districts, handing the party control of the chamber for the first time in a dozen years.

The Blue Dogs themselves added nine freshman lawmakers, raising their own count to 44 members.

“We think it should be obvious to everybody what our role has been in helping us win the majority,” Boyd said.

The coalition’s leaders assert those efforts already have begun to pay dividends. In particular, Ross pointed to the House adoption of “pay-as-you-go” spending rules — one of the Blue Dogs’ top priorities — at the outset of the new Congress.

“We do think that the fact that, not in the first 100 legislative hours, but the first 24 hours of the 110th session of Congress, PAYGO rules being reinstituted on the floor of the House was a significant milestone and demonstrates that we are being taken seriously,” he said.

In addition, Boyd asserted that Democratic leadership has “been very inclusive when it comes to the committee assignments. They have been very inclusive when it comes to consulting us on legislation. We meet with them on a regular basis.

“We think this is the group that represents where the greatest bloc of Americans are — toward that big middle. Not far left, not far right, but that big middle, that’s going to be able to get things done,” he added. “And it’s going to have to be done on a bipartisan basis.”

Even as the Blue Dogs acknowledge their own potential to serve as a bridge to their moderate Republican colleagues, however, the Democratic lawmakers seek to tamp down expectations that any formal bipartisan efforts are under way, noting that their own group has only recently completed its internal organization.

“I think we’re trying to find our way in the majority. The Republicans are trying to find their way in the minority. And both of us are having growing pains. That will come, but it’s been so busy and so hectic,” Tanner said. He added: “We want to be a complement to the Democratic Caucus and a vehicle if necessary to the Republican Conference to try to make that happen.”

While members of both the Blue Dogs and the moderate Republican Tuesday Group previously have suggested the organizations could work together in the new session, for now the Democrats suggest those efforts are limited to one-on-one sessions or the committee level.

“We’re still very early in this new Congress, and while we were having discussions throughout the last Congress, particularly before the election and after the election, as we’ve now moved into majority status our focus has been on our cohesiveness — adding nine new members to our organization — influencing the policy decisions and the direction and agenda of the Democratic majority,” Herseth said.

Nonetheless, the Democrats did make time in December to accept an invitation to the White House, along with the centrist New Democrat Coalition, to meet with President Bush.

“I appreciate the president’s reaching out to us, and I’m hopeful for the next two years we can start to work together for the American people, because that’s what they want,” Moore said.

Despite that gesture, however, Democrats said they remain hesitant about working with the Bush administration, citing not only a lack of comity in recent years but also more specific concerns about the president’s budget proposal and accounting methods.

“If the administration continues to reach out to us as they have, on their ideas and the desire to get serious about entitlement reform, you’d have a pretty receptive group of folks here that would want to undertake that difficult task,” Herseth acknowledged. “But it’s a little bit hard for us given some of the distrust that has evolved over the last few years because of the unwillingness to really reach out to us.”

Moreover, Ross emphasized that pursuing bipartisanship does not mean the Blue Dogs will turn against their own party.

“We’re a lot more interested in affecting Democratic policy and moving Democratic ideas to the middle than we are into defeating Democratic proposals,” Ross said. “We want to help and influence [the Caucus] and not be an obstructionist, but we’re not going to be a rubber stamp either.”

Although the Blue Dogs face some philosophical differences within their own party, most notably with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose San Francisco-based district trends more liberal than many of the rural districts represented in the coalition, the Members sought to downplay any potential divide.

“Let’s face it, we all know that both parties, in large part, are controlled by extremes that in some cases are different from what we might represent in the middle,” Boyd said. “We don’t think the Speaker’s philosophy or her particular district’s philosophy is important. What we think is important is the management style she uses. How she is inclusive with us, how she acts.”

Emphasizing that the relationship remains positive thus far, the Blue Dogs cite the House’s initial efforts to reinstitute PAYGO rules, as well as conversations with the Speaker to pursue a statutory version of that law covering tax cuts as well as spending programs.

“We have talked and talked and talked about the importance of reinstituting the PAYGO rules,” Moore said. “The Democratic Caucus has now done that, and we’re looking at statuary PAYGO. To her credit, Speaker Pelosi and the leadership in our Caucus are also saying we need to look at this and see if we can go do that.”

In addition, Ross noted that the House leadership has offered to pursue a vote on the Blue Dog-backed proposal to implement new accountability standards on government spending on the Iraq War. During remarks on the House floor prior to the Presidents Day recess, Pelosi cited the legislation, authored by Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.).

“I think we’re going to play an important role in continuing to push this accountability of our government,” Ross said. “It’s our duty and obligation to provide oversight, and the last six years this Congress hasn’t been doing it.”

In the meantime, the coalition’s members are preparing to take on the upcoming budget debate and developing potential legislation in other areas as well as via their internal task forces, including: budget and fiscal policy; business and technology; energy and natural resources; government accountability; health care; immigration reform and border security; national and homeland security; and retirement security.

Much as with the full Democratic Caucus, the Blue Dogs also will give attention to maintaining their majority in the 2008 cycle, notably the defense of their freshman lawmakers.

During the 2006 cycle, the coalition’s political arm raised more than $1 million, and according to Ross, Blue Dog lawmakers contributed more than $20 million in combined dues and funds raised to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“We will support, of course, all the members financially, to the extent that we’re successful in fundraising,” Tanner said, adding that the Blue Dogs also will advise their members to “exert their independence” on votes.

“That’s not a slap at the leadership,” Tanner explained. “One of the philosophies of the Blue Dogs when we started was that the voting card that we all carry should belong to the people that hired us. … When it comes down to votes affecting the country’s future we think it’s entirely appropriate for Members to behave as representatives and not as parliamentarians. All that entails is voting the district. … That usually takes care of any problems.”

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