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Blue Dogs Looking for a Lift

Blue Dogs seemed like a dying breed over the past few months, but the group got a boost last week with the surprise appearance of their colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the House floor.

The Arizona Democrat’s unexpected showing in Washington, D.C., after a nearly seven-month absence provided a brief moment of bipartisan celebration amid the heated debt limit debate. For the Blue Dog Coalition, of which Giffords is a member, it was also an extraordinary boost at a time when the once-influential group is looking to regain its relevance.

“I’m a grown man, and it takes a lot to make me cry, and it brought tears to my eyes, as it did to a lot of my colleagues. That was a moment I’ll never forget,” said Rep. Mike Ross, a Blue Dog Coalition co-chairman.

The Arkansas Democrat added, “To see her cast her vote, it was a moment the Blue Dogs waited a very long time for.”

Ross announced last month that he would not seek another term, as he eyes a 2014 gubernatorial run. Add to that the retirement announcement of Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.), the announcement by Rep. Joe Donnelly (Ind.) that he is running for Senate, the departure of former Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.) earlier this year and brief speculation that Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) was mulling an exit, and Members and aides began to openly wonder what the future of the coalition would be.

“It’s not been easy for them this year,” a former chief of staff to a Blue Dog member said. “Caucuses are most relevant when they are among the party that’s in control and there are enough of them. The Blue Dogs don’t have either of those things.”

The group assumed Speaker John Boehner would need its help to pass an increase in the debt limit; the Ohio Republican met with Boren during the run-up to the House vote on Boehner’s initial debt plan that the chamber passed July 29. But Boehner was able to scrape together enough Republican votes to pass his plan, and the Blue Dogs joined the entire Democratic Caucus, as well as several Republicans, in voting against it.

Ross said Boehner’s struggle to rally his Conference behind his debt limit plan, and the loss of 66 Republicans on the compromise that was ultimately approved by the chamber this past Monday, means Blue Dogs will be even more relevant on spending matters later this year.

“Now that the Republican Conference within the House is so splintered, I think that makes our role even more important,” Ross said. “The Speaker obviously has difficulty amassing a majority vote on issues that are bipartisan in nature.”

But Democrats forecast the same scenario earlier this year when, in an interview, Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) predicted that Blue Dogs “are going to be players in trying to solve the problems our country is facing.”

While they put out their own fiscal reform proposal and worked with the Senate “gang of six” on spending matters, the Blue Dogs were not front and center in the debt limit fight, an issue that speaks to their very mission. But the group is composed first of Democrats, and Members said they were angered in equal parts by the Republicans’ messaging as with the majority’s policy proposals.

Shuler, a Blue Dog co-chairman, said voting against Boehner’s proposal showed that “we couldn’t be bought off, and we weren’t just going to play politics.”

“We felt like they wanted to pick off a couple of Blue Dogs so they could say it was a bipartisan piece of legislation,” he said in an interview with Roll Call. Shuler is running for re-election in a district made more Republican by redistricting.

The coalition has at times had a testy relationship with Democratic leaders, particularly with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), but the debt limit debate helped to mend fences between the two camps. Not one Democrat voted for Boehner’s initial plan, and Blue Dogs feel validated now to hear Pelosi and others talk about the merits of fiscal reform.

“Pelosi understands the Blue Dogs’ function; it provides a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for moderates running in red districts,” the former chief of staff said.

Shuler is one of four Blue Dogs on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruitment team, and he predicted the party would have an easier time recruiting moderate candidates for 2012 now that Democratic leaders are talking up fiscal reform and spending controls.

Up-and-comers within the coalition who are seen as its future leaders include Reps. Kurt Schrader (Ore.), John Barrow (Ga.) and Jason Altmire (Pa.). Schrader and Altmire were each re-elected with just 51 percent last year, however, and while it’s hard to imagine the loss of any more moderate Democrats in 2012 than the slash from 2010, each of those Members will have to hustle to win another term. Altmire in particular might be forced into a run against a fellow Democrat, Rep. Mark Critz, because of redistricting.

“It’s easy to write, ‘Whither the Blue Dogs. It’s dead, it’s over,’” the former chief of staff said. “But as long as there’s a chance a Democrat can win but needs Republican votes to win, there will be some group that serves as some Good Housekeeping seal of approval for moderation, and right now that brand is the Blue Dogs. It means something to voters, it means something to donors, it means something to reporters. And part of that is because they haven’t undersold that brand.”

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