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Deficit Fatigue Lifts Blue Dog Stock

Congress’ fresh obsession with deficit spending and the likelihood that the House will be far more balanced after the November elections is further boosting the fortunes of staffers with Blue Dog Democratic roots.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), one of the intellectual heavyweights in the fiscally conservative group, has seen two top staffers head up the ladder recently: his legislative director, James Leuschen, who has been hired by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) as a senior policy adviser, and legislative adviser Elizabeth Falcone, a health care expert hired by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a rising Senate moderate in the Blue Dog mold.

“Blue Dog staffers are more in demand than ever,” Cooper said in an interview Monday. “This is a sign that most of the decisions on governing are going to be made in the middle, and who knows the middle more than Blue Dogs?”

For a long time, Blue Dog aides didn’t have much of a leg up when it came to hiring, Cooper said, but that is changing as the culture on Capitol Hill bends in the direction of the Blue Dogs’ fiscally conservative sensibilities.

Lawmakers and others are already looking ahead to a new Congress that will almost certainly have a much slimmer majority for Democrats, and the Blue Dogs’ signature issues of deficit spending and the debt have risen to the forefront.

“Staff moves are a leading indicator of policy changes,” Cooper said. “That’s why you’re seeing Blue Dog staffers have their day in the sun.”

Hoyer and Warner praised Cooper’s office as a source of talent.

“Congressman Cooper has among the most talented and well-respected staff in Congress, so it was an easy decision to look to his office for an exceptional staffer who will bring his expertise and knowledge to work for my office and House Democrats,” the Majority Leader said in a statement.

“We have to get the implementation of health reform right, and I am very pleased we have been able to bring Elizabeth Falcone onto our staff to help in this effort,” Warner said. “Elizabeth came highly recommended by Congressman Cooper, who is respected on the Hill for assembling a smart and talented staff.”

The two aides follow a host of others who have similarly used Cooper’s office as a springboard, including Russell Rumbaugh, now a defense analyst for Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.); Anne Kim, the economic program director for Third Way; and Atul Gawande, a former Cooper health care staffer and surgeon who authored the June 2009 New Yorker article “The Cost Conundrum,” which became mandatory reading at the White House.

“The House is a farm team, and you just hope you get picked up by the majors, and most of mine have over the years,” Cooper said.

And it’s not just Cooper’s office that’s attracting head hunters. Other Blue Dog members have seen some of their most-trusted staffers lured away to jobs downtown.

That roster is led by Vickie Walling, retiring Tennessee Rep. John Tanner’s longtime chief of staff — frequently described by Blue Dog loyalists as “the heart and soul” of the group — but also includes Libby Greer, former chief of staff for Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), and Stacey Alexander, former chief of staff for Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah).

Although Blue Dog aides do seem to have bigger and broader appeal these days, some staffers to other Democrats cautioned that there has been a lot of turnover all over the Capitol recently as jobs have opened up in the Obama administration or the private sector.

“We’ve had a lot of staff go to a lot of places,” one senior aide said. “We’re in the middle of a natural transition time for a lot of offices.”

The turnover began after health care reform was done and has started to pick up in earnest with the window for legislation starting to slam shut ahead of the November elections.

And one liberal Democratic strategist questioned just how powerful the Blue Dogs will be next year.

“Last time I checked, the polling shows many of the Blue Dogs are poised to lose their seats,” the strategist said. “It will be tough for the Blue Dogs to drive the Democratic Caucus next year if they’re not in it.”

A handful of senior Blue Dogs are retiring, including Tanner and Reps. Marion Berry (Ark.), Bart Gordon (Tenn.) and Dennis Moore (Kan.). Many Blue Dogs who are sticking around are top targets for the GOP in November.

Cooper has staffed up again, with Mel Bass leaving a post representing Vanderbilt University Medical Center to be his legislative director, and Lisa Quigley, a 20-year Hill veteran who has spent time working with Hoyer and former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), staying on as chief of staff.

Cooper said he hoped that closer majorities in the House and Senate next year will usher in a return to less partisan governing. He said Blue Dog staffers are better positioned to work in that environment because they already interact with Republicans.

And even if Democrats lose control this fall, Blue Dogs will still retain an outsize role, he predicted, because Republicans will need their votes on some issues.

“Blue Dogs are able to [do well] in either environment,” he said. “We spend a good deal of our time talking to people in the other party.”

Cooper pointed to the growing number of victories in the past year giving Blue Dogs momentum, with a pay-as-you-go law chief among them.

“The consequences of that are just being felt,” he said.

While the law has trillions of dollars of loopholes, including for a Medicare “doctor fix,” Democrats who a year ago were letting such things skate by are now starting to demand offsets for everything, law or not.

“Once you are required to eat your vegetables, you notice their absence on your plate,” Cooper said. “When the doctor fix came up, it was, ‘Well, why aren’t we paying for this?’ If you are going to eat healthy some of the time, why not all of the time?”

“Structure may be boring, but it determines everything else,” he said.

Cooper also said that there are efforts to reach out to like-minded Senators such as Warner, a law school classmate of Cooper’s, to expand the Blue Dog ranks across the Dome. During the health care debate, about a dozen moderate Democratic Senators met with Blue Dogs to plot strategy, Cooper noted.

Cooper is also hard at work grooming future Blue Dog Members: He has one of the biggest intern programs in the House, with 15 each summer, and Cooper usually spends an hour a day with them, forcing them to debate and defend their views on the issues of the day.

Cooper said he encourages them not just to be staffers, but to run for office themselves.

“Politics is not about what happens to other people,” he tells them. “It’s your own neck on the line.”

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.

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