Monday, July 27, 2009

Blue Dog Democrats Bit Healthcare Reform...

WASHINGTON -- So-called Blue Dog Democrats continued to resist key aspects of their party's health-care overhaul Sunday, despite pressure from party leaders who fear they will endanger President Barack Obama's most ambitious legislative effort.

A leader of the fiscally conservative group of representatives said he expects any vote on the House's health proposal would have to wait, likely until after Labor Day. "I think the American people want to take a closer look at this legislation. They want to feel more comfortable with it," Rep. Jim Cooper, a Blue Dog from Tennessee, said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disputed any suggestion that the Blue Dogs' protests threatened the bill's passage. "Absolutely, positively not," she said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." "When I take this bill to the floor, it will win...We will move forward. This will happen."

Blue Dogs have emerged as pivotal players in the national health-care debate, a swing group that the White House is wooing more intensely to keep its initiative on track. The group, which accounts for about one-fifth of House Democrats, wants to make sure the health-care plan isn't too expensive for small businesses and hopes to keep the government's costs down. They don't want private health insurers to compete with a federally funded plan, and seek to reduce the share of lower-income Americans who would receive health-care subsidies.

Following a week in which the Blue Dogs challenged several key planks of the Democratic plan, most lawmakers agree a delay in the House legislation is likely. The House is set to adjourn next week, and unless lawmakers decide to stay in Washington for a few extra days, a decision would be put off until after Labor Day.

The Blue Dogs' clout arises from simple math -- they account for 52 seats in the House, enough to topple any law in cooperation with Republicans -- and some irony. Hungry to retake Congress, Democrats actively recruited moderate candidates in conservative districts. The strategy was strikingly successful in recapturing the majority. But now the Democrats are learning the price as they try to enact their agenda.

The power of the Blue Dogs was on full display Friday, when they humiliated California Rep. Henry Waxman, one of the most liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill. Late last year, Rep. Waxman had shown his power by gaining control of the Energy and Commerce Committee, wresting the chairman's seat from Congress's most senior Democrat. On Friday morning, Rep. Waxman went before cameras and fired a blast at seven Blue Dogs on his committee who have blocked the health legislation from proceeding to the House floor for vote.

The chairman said he was done negotiating with them. "We're not going to let them empower the Republicans to control the committee," he said.

Hours later, the Beverly Hills Democrat was back in front of reporters with one of the seven, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas. "Our colleagues have pulled us both back and said let's all take a deep breath, that nothing is irreconcilable," the chairman said.

The Blue Dog Coalition came together after the Democrats' loss of Congress in 1994. Some representatives, mainly Southerners, believed the party's losses stemmed from a drift to the left. They decided to take a name that played on the old term "yellow dog," Southern Democrats who were ostensibly so loyal they would vote for a yellow dog if it ran on the party's ticket.

One of the founding members, former Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, had paintings of blue dogs in his office by artist George Rodrigue, prompting some of the roughly 20 lawmakers to joke that they were yellow dogs who'd been "choked blue" by the party's liberals. Rep. Tauzin later switched to the Republican Party.

.The Blue Dogs' numbers expanded with the election of lawmakers such as North Carolina Rep. Heath Shuler, an ex-Washington Redskins quarterback who opposes abortion, gun control and gay marriage. Democrats begged him to run for Congress in 2006, believing he could win his rural, religious district. The coalition retains a Southern sensibility but many of its members now come from other areas. Nineteen members, called "Blue Pups," won seats in the past two elections.

Beyond health care, the Blue Dogs have helped delay a climate-change bill and block legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize.

That frustrates liberals, who say the Democratic Party's victory last November, including a 256-178 majority in the House, gives it a once-in-a-generation chance to enact a liberal agenda.

"Since they can vote with the Republicans in order to get their way around here, that doesn't sit well with progressives -- who don't want to vote with Republicans ever," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat and co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.

Rep. Shuler, for his part, said that before agreeing to run, he spoke to Rep. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer to make sure he'd have the freedom he needed.

"One conversation I had with both of them before coming to Congress was, 'I'm going to vote my district,'" Rep. Shuler said. "It's one of those swing districts that can go either way...They're aware of that."

As long ago as May, the Blue Dogs complained of being shut out of the health-care debate. In a sharp letter to Democratic leaders, they wrote they were "increasingly troubled" by their exclusion.

Rep. Pelosi and others set up a flurry of meetings with them, but the Blue Dogs were not satisfied -- especially their point man on health care, Rep. Ross of Arkansas, a former drugstore owner.

"We want to be the brokers of this health-care debate," said Rep. Ross, who leads a bloc of seven Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee. "Not a roadblock."

Overall, House Blue Dogs are not always in alliance. But the bloc of seven on the Energy and Commerce Committee -- an eighth Blue Dog there, Rep. Jane Harman of California, is a liberal on health-care issues -- has shown every sign of remaining unified.

The question now is whether Democratic leaders could bypass the committee and take the bill directly to the House floor. Rep. Ross and others say that without the Blue Dogs, Democratic leaders do not have the votes to pass the bill on the floor. So far, Democratic leaders have not wanted to test that proposition.

If Democratic leaders ultimately satisfy the Blue Dogs, the health bill will likely clear the House this week, marking a significant victory for President Obama. A version of the bill is still mired in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are engaged in tough negotiations to produce bipartisan legislation.

Mr. Obama met with the Blue Dogs for an hour at the White House last week. Rep. Pelosi recently spent 90 minutes listening to their concerns.

Tennessee Blue Dog Rep. Cooper, who clashed with then-first lady Hillary Clinton over her failed health-care revamp in 1993, is considered by many Democrats a key player to win over this time. He says his group has spent "endless hours" with White House aides seeking common ground.

The Blue Dogs' resistance has angered other Democrats. At a heated closed-door meeting of House Democrats last week, Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, complained about the Blue Dogs holding up the health bill in Energy and Commerce Committee, noting pointedly that all are white men.

Blue Dog lawmakers Jim Marshall of Georgia, left, Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, foreground, and John Tanner of Tennessee, right.
.Some critics also point out that while the Blue Dogs proclaim their desire to cut the health bill's costs, they are also demanding that rural doctors -- who serve their districts -- get more money, which could drive up those same costs. The Blue Dogs say they are asking for a redistribution of funds among care providers, not an overall increase.

Emotions have run high among Blue Dogs as well. When the health-care talks nearly broke down Friday, Rep. Ross said Rep. Waxman had reneged on agreements he'd reached with the Blue Dogs. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Louisiana said he'd been "lied to."

"We've always been in the middle," said Rep. John Tanner, a Tennessee Blue Dog. "If you're going to get some of these really tough issues done, it has to be done somewhere in the middle."

When Mr. Obama took office in January, with Democrats sweeping to dominant majorities, many in the party were giddy at the prospect of an agenda that would mark a third great wave of progressive Democratic legislation, after the New Deal and the Great Society.

It didn't take long for the Blue Dogs to play their cards. When Mr. Obama unveiled his $787 billion economic-stimulus plan, a crucial priority of his early presidency, the Blue Dogs said they would not go along unless Democratic leaders agreed to pay-as-you go budget rules. Those rules require new spending and tax cuts to be offset so the deficit doesn't grow.

The White House had little choice but to agree. That deal bore fruit Wednesday, when the House voted 265-166 to impose a "paygo" system. Rep. Baron Hill of Indiana, a leading Blue Dog, exulted that this had been one of the group's signature issues for a decade. Republican critics said the legislation still doesn't go far enough because it exempts all discretionary spending, and applies only to nonroutine increases in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Write to Naftali Bendavid at

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A1

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