Blue Dog Power Moves Downtown

Centrist Group Suffered Major Losses in Congress, Regroups on K Street

Posted March 4, 2011 at 4:56pm

With more Blue Dogs out of Congress than in, the power center of the moderate Democratic coalition has shifted from under the Capitol Dome to downtown Washington, D.C.

Members of the fiscally conservative group are struggling to find their influence on Capitol Hill, but the Blue Dog brand thrives on K Street. And some of the downtown Blue Dogs are trying to give their 26 remaining on-the-Hill colleagues a way to re-energize the potentially endangered species in Congress.

Former Blue Dogs say their counterparts on the Hill have an opportunity to negotiate with Republicans and play hardball with Democrats, especially when budget issues are at the forefront of the agenda.

“What I’ve conveyed to my fellow Blue Dogs is, ‘You haven’t spoken up,’” former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (Texas) said about the Blue Dogs’ handling of the continuing budget resolution fight. “What you ought to be doing on the budget, you ought to be sitting down with Republicans,” added Stenholm, now a lobbyist at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz.

Now that the coalition is much smaller, half the size it was in the 111th Congress, Blue Dogs must show both sides of the aisle what they are for and against, former Rep. Bud Cramer (D-Ala.) said.

“They’ve been wounded. Some of them squeaked by,” said Cramer, chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. “I think they’re in a good position to re-establish themselves.”

To help them along, the Blue Dog Research Forum, a group founded last year by Cramer, Stenholm and other former Blue Dog Coalition members and staffers, just hired its first executive director: Cori Smith, the former chief of staff to then-Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.). And the organization is planning its first salon dinner this year on Wednesday at the Source restaurant with economist Paul Volcker.

The forum, Stenholm said, is something he wished the Blue Dogs had when he was in Congress — “a downtown entity that would be there to work with us, praise us when we’re doing things right and chastise us when we’re not doing things right.”

Rep. Dennis Cardoza said the Blue Dogs’ reduced numbers have not diminished their effect.

“It’s still an effective voice, and we’ll be stepping it up,” the California Democrat said. “We’ve been as effective or more effective than any other caucus at advocating our positions.”

Cardoza, a co-chairman of the Blue Dogs’ political action committee, named regulatory reform as just one of many areas where Blue Dogs could make an effect.

“This is only starting the third month of the new Congress,” he said. “There will be some time for us to assert our influence.”

But not all Blue Dogs want to take a more aggressive stance. Rep. Collin Peterson, the last founding member of the group still in Congress, said he thinks the fiscal conservatives needs to pick their battles carefully.

“The problem is, we’re not having a real argument on the deficit; we’re arguing about 12 percent of the deficit,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “I’m not willing to play that game if it’s not real.”

Peterson said he is counseling the next generation of Blue Dogs, who have not been in the minority before, to “settle down, calm down.”

But there have already been strong undercurrents within parts of the coalition to buck Democratic leadership. Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog co-chairman, ran against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) for Minority Leader at the beginning of the year, and Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), another co-chairman, indicated in February that coalition members were considering voting for the Republican stopgap spending measure over the objections of Democratic leaders. Cardoza, who served as an unofficial liaison for moderates, including Blue Dogs, has publicly criticized Pelosi for not inviting him back to leadership meetings this year.

Stenholm acknowledged that all Blue Dogs don’t think alike. “They’ve been unable to find a consensus,” he said.

And that may not be anything new.

The original group of Blue Dogs, who came together after the 1994 elections swept Republicans into power, had fewer than 20 Members and even that small posse didn’t always agree.

“We didn’t always see issues the same way,” Cramer said. “Charlie Stenholm and I didn’t always want to take the same approach, but finally I think the consensus of the group prevailed.”

In 1995, the Blue Dogs supported welfare reform and could tell Democratic leaders, “Don’t mess with us,” Cramer said. Similarly, sitting Blue Dogs may have to fight the Obama administration on some issues. “They’ll need to be that clear,” Cramer urged.

The nearly 30 former Blue Dogs who lost their seats in November sympathize with their colleagues on the Hill.

“They’ve got a challenging dynamic in play,” said ex-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), a former Blue Dog co-chairwoman  who has joined Stenholm’s firm.

While still in office during the lame-duck session last year, then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.) noted that at a Blue Dog Christmas party, there were more members departing Congress than returning.

“What I told them that night was the people that got the toughest job were those that were going to be Members of the 112th,” he said. “It’s a difficult task of being a minority within a minority.”

Even Cramer admits what the current Blue Dogs are going through may not compare to the mid-1990s power shift.

“It’s easy for me to say these things. It’s a very different atmosphere than what we encountered even in ’95,” Cramer said.

For all the political peril of Blue Dogs, their expats are fitting in well on K Street. That’s because their typically moderate, frequently pro-business views mesh well with pragmatic corporate America.

Pomeroy has joined Alston & Bird, while former Rep. Charlie Melancon (La.) has become a top lobbyist for the International Franchise Association. And ex-Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.) joined the Prime Policy Group.

“What several firms told me is they liked that I had worked on a bipartisan basis and took policy issues seriously,” said Pomeroy, who logged 18 years in the House. “Those traits are Blue Dog traits. It wasn’t the Blue Dog brand that helped me, but a bipartisan, common-sense approach that had appeal in the private sector.”

Herseth Sandlin agreed, saying, “Current and former Blue Dogs have the set of skills and a record that people respect in the private sector.”

As for their role on the Hill, a senior Democratic aide said, the Blue Dogs in Congress are getting their footing as they adjust to being in the minority.

“When you only have 26 members, everyone has their own ideas of what they should be doing,” the aide said, noting that the coalition’s first opportunity to distinguish itself from Democratic leadership would be during the upcoming debt limit debate. “There have not been a lot of places to step out,” the aide said.

Added Cramer: “It’s up to the Blue Dogs now — and they’ll do it — to pull themselves together, re-establish their identity.”

Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.