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Blue Dogs Face $52B Test

GI Entitlement Creates Fiscal and Political Challenge

Those fiscally conservative Blue Dogs promise they aren’t going to roll over this time, even if it means voting against a popular election-year package of veterans benefits and angering House leaders.

They say they are done rolling over.

They will have a chance to show their pedigree this week when they have to choose whether to vote the fiscally conservative line and force Democratic leaders to either pay for a $52 billion new entitlement for veterans with spending cuts or revenue increases or rip it from the war supplemental.

“Absolutely it’s a test for the Blue Dogs,” said Blue Dog co-Chairman Mike Ross (D-Ark.). “If we allow a mandatory program into the supplemental for the sole purpose of waiving PAYGO rules, then we will have lost our way.”

Blue Dogs cite the Medicare drug law, which will cost trillions in the coming decades and yet was not paid for, as analogous to the veterans’ benefit. They say it is not a question of the program’s merits, rather it is the principle that even the best programs need to be paid for.

“We support the program,” Ross said of the new GI bill. “We just want it paid for. Our job is to be the fiscal police.”

Blue Dogs have complained that supplemental spending bills have increasingly been used to add spending that balloons the deficit.

“Supplementals are supposed to be for emergencies, for things that can’t be predicted from one year to the next,” Ross said, not for entitlement programs with long-term costs. “It’s clear the only reason it’s there is to circumvent the PAYGO rules, and we can’t stand for that.”

Democratic negotiators were trying to find ways to shrink the cost of the new entitlement while also targeting offsets. That appeared to be a tall order to manage in one week.

“We’re at a stalemate,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said.

So far in the 110th Congress, Democrats have added hundreds of billions in unpaid-for spending on the wars, tax cuts and domestic programs while trying to claim credit for reinstituting a PAYGO rule, albeit one that is so weak that Democrats have been able to all but ignore it.

Last year, Democrats forced through an alternative minimum tax relief package without offsets over the objections of Blue Dogs, and this year, they passed a massive bipartisan stimulus package without offsets as well.

The Blue Dogs have often extracted rhetorical promises of future actions, such as a promised vote on a statutory PAYGO rule that would make the latest budgetary maneuver illegal. But they have seen little follow-through.

Blue Dogs note that those earlier battles were over short-term issues and patches, not creating long-term programs.

The Blue Dog battle might ultimately relieve Republicans of having to cast a tough vote against a major expansion of veterans benefits.

Even if the package survives the House, it will then head for the Senate, which is certain to plump up the nearly $245 billion House package further, making it even less palatable to Blue Dogs and more likely to face a presidential veto.

Democratic aides who support the supplemental as written said they were surprised Blue Dogs decided to suddenly pick veterans benefits as the issue to make their stand, especially since so many of them have large numbers of veterans in their districts or are veterans themselves.

They suggested that either Blue Dogs will have to compromise, such as exacting a promise to pay for the program in the near future, or find an offset that can pass both chambers, or that the GI bill will have to be pulled from the bill, which would disappoint a key constituency and embarrass leadership.

But Blue Dogs complained that leadership hadn’t properly vetted the proposal.

“We were blindsided by this,” Cooper said.

And Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) said Democratic leaders and Blue Dogs need to have a dialogue about how to pay for the GI bill, and not how to get around the PAYGO rule. “GIs deserve to be treated better, but we should pay for it. We can do both.”

An aide to a Blue Dog said leadership made the mistake of taking them for granted.

“It all just reeks of political pandering,” the aide said.

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