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Blue Dogs Aim to Accommodate Growth

With House Democrats increasingly looking to conservative candidates to grow their majority, members of the fiscally austere Blue Dog Coalition are signaling they will lift their year-old admission cap to accommodate an influx of like-minded freshmen.

The group last February took the unusual step of restricting its membership rolls to 20 percent of the size of the full Democratic Caucus to guard against growing unwieldy.

But with the special election victories this month of two Blue Dog-backed candidates — Don Cazayoux (La.) and Travis Childers (Miss.) — and a host of once-long-shot Democratic candidates running in GOP strongholds now looking more competitive, the coalition’s leaders said they are likely to re-evaluate the cap after the November elections.

“When we passed the rule, we never dreamed we’d be in the position we’re in today,” said Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), the coalition’s communications chairman, referring to the bylaw change Blue Dogs adopted to cap growth. “We in no way want to limit the membership of those who share our principles.”

The group maxed out at 47 members last June when it voted to add five new members from an initial pool of 14 candidates. Among those denied membership were Reps. Henry Cuellar (Texas), Nancy Boyda (Kan.) and Harry Mitchell (Ariz.), though leaders said they were “pending” for future openings. (It’s not clear whether Boyda is still interested. Her spokeswoman said the freshman “has found her stride” and is comfortable operating independently).

Ross said that “for all practical purposes,” Cazayoux and Childers, who has not yet been sworn in, are welcome in Blue Dog ranks, though they will not become official members until after the election.

If House Democrats win seats in November, the coalition could add new members without adjusting the cap. For example, if Democrats padded their majority by 25 seats — the upper limit of gains political experts now see as possible — Blue Dog membership would expand by five.

But a sizable Democratic victory would likely add names to the list of Blue Dogs-in-waiting. The group has already endorsed three Democratic challengers, and that list — the Blue Pups vetted in every election cycle since 1998 — could still grow.

Math aside, adding to the membership rolls raises questions about whether the coalition can continue to act cohesively.

“Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better,” an aide to one Blue Dog said. “Our guys, because they end up in the minority in our caucus, need to produce a voting bloc. The larger you get, the harder it is sometimes to produce voting blocs.”

The group has to muster two-thirds of its membership to take an official position on an issue. And members pride themselves on their closeness: The group boasts consistently high attendance at its weekly meetings, and on the House floor, Blue Dogs usually huddle in the same spot, close to the center aisle.

“They’re almost like a family,” another Blue Dog aide said.

Most factions of the Democratic Caucus stick to criteria for membership through ideological litmus tests or ethnicity, but the Blue Dog coalition is the only high-profile group to impose numerical limitations. The group has already expanded significantly since the 2006 elections, up from 34 members in the 109th Congress.

The group has racked up a mixed record this Congress. It won a major victory in the opening days of Democratic control by securing pay-as-you-go budgeting, but the alternative minimum tax patch and the economic stimulus package violated that rule. Last week, Blue Dogs won a symbolic victory by forcing Democratic leaders to cover the cost of a $52 billion veterans’ education bill, but the offset is not expected to survive in the Senate this week.

Ross played down the possibility that new members could strain the coalition. “It’s just a matter of fine-tuning our bylaws and how much fine-tuning we need to do,” he said. “It’s a wonderful problem to have.”

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