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With budget issues dominating the agenda and Republicans showing signs of splintering, the Blue Dog Coalition is maneuvering to play an influential role in the upcoming debt ceiling vote.

The Blue Dogs, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats who were so loud after losing coalition members during last fall’s midterm elections, have stayed out of the limelight in recent months. But behind the scenes, the group is rebuilding in hopes of providing critical votes — in exchange for useful policy ideas — on the debt limit voting coming later this spring or summer.

“I think that we are going to be players in trying to solve the problems our country is facing,” Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) said. “We have divided government, but there are going to have to be compromises. We think we’ll have something to offer to debate, but we want to offer it while it’s being formed rather than saying we’re for or against something.”

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a key Blue Dog ally, reached out to Speaker John Boehner earlier this week to lay the groundwork for bipartisan talks to pass a debt limit increase. In a letter to the Ohio Republican, Hoyer urged bipartisan cooperation to avoid damage to the economy and warned that “playing politics with the debt ceiling will do that by creating economic uncertainty, or worse.”

In their own campaign for relevancy, the Blue Dogs released a set of proposals for economic reform last month, some of which could be heard in President Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday.

Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), a Blue Dog co-chairman, has reached out to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a member of the Senate’s “gang of six,” which is working on fiscal reforms. And last month Shuler met with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy to discuss entitlement reform. The California Republican has said GOP leaders aren’t looking to moderate Democrats for votes, even as some conservative Republicans threaten to oppose key budget measures for not shrinking spending enough.

Still, Shuler thinks the Blue Dogs are well-positioned to be involved.

“The Blue Dogs have been right all along in the way that we proceed and go forward,” he said in an interview. “[This is] what we’ve been talking and discussing for 10 years, and the time has arrived and the Blue Dogs are ready for that discussion and ready and open to discuss in a bipartisan way.”

Shuler noted that so far this year, the Blue Dog Coalition has been unified on a host of floor votes, including the series of continuing resolutions to keep the government open. Indeed, most Blue Dog members voted for the CR on March 15 that drew the ire of conservative Republicans, 54 of whom voted against the measure. Fellow Co-Chairman Mike Ross said that CR vote proved the group’s value.

“We came very close to a government shutdown Saturday morning, [but] don’t forget that the last CR would not have passed and there would have been a government shutdown three weeks ago had it not been for moderate, conservative Democrats who supported it,” the Arkansas Democrat said.

A total of 85 Democrats voted for that measure.

Others in the conservative coalition are happy with the way Shuler is positioning himself and the group. In the first weeks of the new Congress, the Blue Dogs were primarily a small band of dissenters, still bruised by election losses, and they ran a token challenge against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Minority Leader. Shuler received 43 votes.

“First he said, ‘I’m running’ [for leader]. Now he’s saying we’ve got to get away from the politics and to the governing,” Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said. “He’s actually been very constructive; he’s always talking to us about the things we ought to be looking at.”

 The group counts only 25 members but still hopes to play an outsized role as a bloc of swing votes.

One Democratic aide observed: “With the focus on budget and fiscal responsibility, there’s probably some frustration that there’s not been a place for them to stand and be bipartisan. Republicans have been so far extreme in their budget debate that they’ve not provided a place for them to find common ground.”

Nevertheless, Members are counting on their number being called. With Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) holding strong influence over his conservative colleagues and threatening to vote against a debt ceiling increase unless drastic measures are taken, Rep. Dennis Cardoza predicted that in just a few weeks time, “you’re going to have an absolute war” in the GOP Conference.

“You’re already seeing those major fault lines coming through,” the California Democrat added. “And you’re going to need moderate Democrats to work with business Republicans to get the job done. There’s a whole heck of a lot of relevancy. People just haven’t woken up to that fact yet.”

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