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Blue Dogs Show Rabid Interest in Fiscal Austerity

With Congress sidestepping budget rules and facing a sparse election-year agenda, members of the fiscally conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition are going back to the basics this session.

“We’re going to be the fiscal police,” Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), one of the group’s four co-chairmen, said during an interview with fellow Blue Dog leaders on Thursday.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), also a Blue Dog co-chairman, echoed that the group, which comprises 47 House Members, will focus on a core principle: pay-as-you-go budget rules.

“Regardless of what bill comes to the floor this year, our job is to make sure that it’s paid for, that it’s fiscally responsible. We see that as the major role we’ll play this year,” Ross said. PAYGO requires any spending increases to be offset, or paid for, with comparative budget cuts or tax increases.

That renewed focus comes in the wake of months in which it has appeared that PAYGO rules, if not dead, had gone into a deep hibernation.

Although the House largely had followed the spending rules during the 110th Congress, Blue Dogs witnessed a sudden and significant defeat in December when lawmakers, faced with opposition from Senate Republicans, circumvented PAYGO to pass a temporary patch of the alternative minimum tax.

At that time, Ross recalled, he and several other Blue Dog lawmakers crossed the Capitol to save the House legislation. That chamber already had approved two bills under PAYGO to ease the reach of the AMT.

“We walked on the Senate floor and just visited Democratic Senators, trying to make our case to them. We did everything we could,” Ross said.

The second blow to the Blue Dogs’ fiscal discipline came in January as the House again put aside its spending rules when passing a $156 billion economic stimulus of tax rebates. The coalition was divided but did not stand in the way of a stimulus without “pay-fors.”

“It’s kind of hard to tax people when you’re giving them a rebate,” Ross said.

In the aftermath, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a co-founder of the Blue Dogs, said “a change in the thinking around here” was needed.

“We come into the majority — a slim majority. We don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, we don’t have enough Democratic votes in the House to [vote to] override [a presidential veto] — and so we are trying to work the art of the possible here and change this direction,” said Tanner, co-chairman of the Blue Dogs’ political action committee.

“It’s like trying to change an aircraft carrier. It takes seven miles to turn an aircraft carrier 90 degrees … because of the inertia, the momentum that you can’t turn something that big,” he added.

Crossing the Aisle

The Democratic lawmakers said they plan to improve their relationship with their Republican counterparts.

“We had meetings [in February] with a Republican group, we have meetings [this] week with a Republican group, to see if we can find some common ground,” Boyd said, referring to a recent session on the budget. “We have to tear down that wall, that partisan wall.”

They face a challenge in increasing the frequency and significance of such meetings. Moderate Democrats and Republicans called for similar efforts early in the 110th Congress, but neither the Blue Dogs nor their GOP counterparts have scheduled any bipartisan sessions.

Nonetheless, Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), co-chairman of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group, said he expected to see progress on that goal this year.

“My hope is that we can work with the Blue Dogs on a number of things on fiscal responsibility,” Kirk said.

In the meantime, the Democratic coalition also is working to expand its numbers across the Capitol, said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), the Blue Dogs’ internal Whip, noting that leaders have held discussions with former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), who is campaigning for the seat held by retiring Sen. John Warner (R).

“We do believe we need some true partners in the Senate to put the same kind of pressure on their leadership,” she said. “Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.], Sen. [Kent] Conrad [D-N.D.] and others, I think, are committed to the idea of PAYGO, but they’re working with such a narrow margin over there.”

Blue Dogs also point to the White House as a necessary ally in their mission. Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), a co-chairman of the coalition, criticized President Bush, asserting that since Moore extended an olive branch in early 2007 during a one-time meeting, the Republican administration has effectively ignored the coalition.

“What’s important is that we have a real opportunity to come back next year with a new president and a new Congress,” Ross said.

The watchdog effort might not be necessary this year, as the Democrats have a meager agenda and an election year promises more time in home districts instead of on the floor.

Beyond the Budget

For now, Blue Dogs point to the House budget resolution, expected on the floor this week, as a sign of renewed allegiance to the chamber’s budget rules.

“We had meetings with [Budget] Chairman [John] Spratt [D-S.C.]. We directly influenced how the final version of the budget that Democrats are offering looks,” Ross said.

In particular, the House budget plan calls for a reconciliation bill that would provide offsets for a new one-year AMT patch to keep it from hitting more middle-class taxpayers. By putting it in a reconciliation bill, the House can sidestep the threat of a Senate filibuster, which forced the House’s hand during negotiations last December.

“We obviously can’t speak for the Senate. They have to figure that out over there for themselves,” Boyd said. “But we’re going to pass a budget bill out of the House that has AMT in the reconciliation bill.”

While Blue Dogs aim to make their bones on fiscal issues, other issues could appeal to the coalition. It has not taken a position in the debate over the extension and expansion of the federal government’s warrantless wiretapping program.

“No one has sought out a two-thirds vote in the Blue Dog Coalition on that issue, so every Member is basically on their own,” Ross noted, although Members have urged Democratic leaders to finish work on the legislation before the two-week March recess begins Friday. The House is expected to vote on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as early as today.

Many Blue Dogs represent rural, Republican-leaning districts where every vote could result in an attack ad. Some vulnerable lawmakers have been the target of advertisements highlighting the wiretapping program. The holdup is over whether to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that provided the government with data.

“Most of the Blue Dogs have voted every time to give the White House the authorities it has sought,” Herseth Sandlin said.

Although seven Blue Dogs voted against a House-sponsored 21-day extension of FISA last month — and together with some liberal Democrats and Republicans killed the measure — Herseth Sandlin added: “Most Blue Dogs, even though it’s not an official position, believe we should have the time to work through those differences.”

Moderate Democrats also could find themselves forced to take sides over another contentious issue in coming weeks, as House Republicans attempt to force an immigration measure authored by freshman Blue Dog Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) to the floor for a vote.

GOP leaders are gauging support for a discharge petition to move Shuler’s largely enforcement-orientated measure.

If successful, the tactic could force divisions within the Democratic Caucus to the surface, in particular between Blue Dogs and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has demanded more comprehensive legislation to include some form of legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Although more than 20 Blue Dogs have signed on as co-sponsors of the Shuler bill, Ross — himself a co-sponsor — insisted that the measure is not endorsed by the coalition.

Boyd, also a co-sponsor, echoed that sentiment: “The nation is divided on the issue. I think it’s something we’ll have to come to grips with. … “I don’t think anybody in this room has a solid, clear answer.”

But Tanner, another co-sponsor, indicated he would not sign onto the discharge petition, opening the door to other Blue Dogs to do the same.

“I personally don’t like to sign discharge petitions any time because you really are bypassing the deliberation that hopefully will go into something this complex,” he said.

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