Just a week into his administration, President Barack Obama was facing his first major test on the floor of Congress, and he was on a path toward losing.
[IMGCAP(1)]A large number of Blue Dogs, the 51-member faction of moderate-to-conservative Democratic fiscal disciplinarians, were withholding their support for the Obama-backed $819 billion stimulus legislation and were considering derailing it by taking down one of the rules on the bill.
They had been asking the White House, without success, for a written commitment to substantive steps to limit future spending. Discussions had gone fairly well with Office of Management and Budget chief Peter Orszag — whom Blue Dogs had grown to know and trust as a fellow advocate of tight budgets during his tenure as Congressional Budget Office chief — but still there was nothing in writing.
“We didn’t get it, and we didn’t get it, and we didn’t get it,— said one Blue Dog aide.
On Jan. 27, just one day before the vote was to take place, a group of a half-dozen or so Blue Dog top dogs, including Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, Charlie Melancon of Louisiana and Baron Hill of Indiana, trekked to the White House to let Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel know that Obama was in trouble.
Emanuel understood. He knew these people, and he knew the Blue Dogs’ needs and the demands of their potentially Republican-voting constituents for the federal government to mind its books. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2006 cycle, he had captured the House for the Democrats in no small part by putting Blue Dogs in office.
Emanuel promised the Blue Dogs a written commitment to statutory budget limits, an invitation to a fiscal discipline summit Obama was planning, and meeting with the president for the whole lot of the group.
On Jan. 28, the morning of the vote, Orszag sent a letter to Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.). The letter’s most important lines were for the Blue Dogs:
“Moving forward, we need to return to the fiscal responsibility and pay-as-you-go budgeting that we had in the 1990s for all non-emergency measures,— Orszag wrote. “The president and his economic team look forward to working with the Congress to develop budget enforcement rules.—
It worked. Though it remained an unbearably tough vote to spend so much money, most of the Dogs had come to recognize that the economy needed a shot in the arm, even one not paid for, and they could live with it as long as they had assurance of future discipline. Less than a dozen members of the group opposed the stimulus, and the bill passed the House and was on its way into law.
Obama that day won more than a vote. He had begun corralling into his corner perhaps the most important bloc of votes in the House, one that will make the difference on key Obama priorities such as entitlements, war spending and the budget.
But Obama’s motivations extend beyond cobbling together majorities for bills to court the Blue Dogs.
For one, sources say Obama and his team have looked carefully at what has worked in the past on the budget and come to the conclusion that statutory spending limits the Blue Dogs support — like PAYGO rules forcing new tax cuts or spending to be offset — are the only way to get a handle of the deficit.
“The advantage the Blue Dogs have is that Obama believes in it,— said Steve Elmendorf, current president of Elmendorf Strategies and the longtime top aide to former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.).
“The good thing about this White House team is that they are a bunch of people who were here in the 1990s,— said Elmendorf, who is close to many of the former advisers to President Bill Clinton now with Obama. He pointed to the 1997 balanced budget amendment and the statutory limits it included to keep a rein on spending.
Elmendorf also observed that much of the new blood coming into the Democratic Caucus is from Blue Dog and other moderate territory. Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) know they must accommodate the new members — and others in dangerously conservative territory — on issues important to their constituents, or see the fledgling Democratic majority threatened.
Elmendorf said that in 1994, Democrats lost control of the House in part because they failed to address the issues of imperiled Democrats.
After the Jan. 28 letter, Obama’s courting of the Blue Dogs continued, and the Blue Dogs have been impressed, according to Democratic sources. He met with them Feb. 10 in the White House State Dining Room, committing personally to budget discipline and entitlement reform but warning them that some of the axed projects would be in their districts and they’d better like it.
Other gestures were taken as huge victories for the Blue Dogs over other Democrats less concerned with deficits. Obama included in his budget a commitment to PAYGO. And less noticed, but equally important to many, he vowed that his health care overhaul effort will be not be paid for with new debt.
The group feels it has several go-to people in the White House, including Emanuel, Orszag and three others they knew as staffers on the Hill — legislative affairs chief Phil Schiliro, House liaison Dan Turton and Orszag deputy Rob Nabors. Several of their own have a solid relationship with Obama or his staff, including Tennessee Reps. Jim Cooper and John Tanner.
There will be more tests ahead, and with Obama’s ambitious plans in areas like health and energy, a lot of Blue Dogs are still a bit wary. But for now most in the caucus are purring contentedly. Or whatever dogs do when they’re happy.