The Magazine

Housebroken 'Blue Dogs'

Nancy Pelosi keeps them on a short leash.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By WHITNEY BLAKE
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When Democrats swept the 2006 midterm elections, several freshman House Democrats won on conservative platforms. A number of these so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats hail from districts that President Bush carried at least once. But the House belongs to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, not to Bush, and the Blue Dogs have caught on quickly.

On almost every issue, the freshman Blue Dogs have failed to advance their campaign agendas, which were carefully tailored to their moderate constituencies. From the war on terror, to taxes and the budget, to immigration and free trade, the Blue Dogs may talk tough, but they're more Yorkie than German Shepherd when confronted with Pelosi's iron grip.

One would think the Blue Dog coalition, with its 48 members, would have more sway in a House in which Democrats have only a 36-seat edge over Republicans. Instead, after initial bursts of rhetoric contrary to Pelosi's positions, most of them caved to the party leadership, even when that meant stepping out of alignment with their districts.

The fate of these freshmen this November is yet to be determined, but they aren't breathing easy. Twelve of the 13 are listed on the Cook Political Report's most recent "competitive races" chart. Note that a heavy contingent--8 of the 13--represent key swing states: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Florida. Six are competing in districts Cook classifies as "likely Democratic" (Joe Donnelly, IN-2; Brad Ellsworth, IN-8; Michael Arcuri, NY-24; former NFL quarterback Heath Shuler, NC-11; Zack Space, OH-18; and Iraq war veteran Patrick Murphy, PA-8). Four are running in "lean Democratic" districts (Tim Mahoney, FL-16; Baron Hill, IN-9; Kirsten Gillibrand, NY-20; and Gabrielle Giffords, AZ-8). Two are in the "toss up" category (Chris Carney, PA-10, and Nick Lampson, TX-22). Cook deemed only one freshman Blue Dog safe (Charles Wilson, OH-6). In addition, Arcuri, Carney, Gillibrand, Giffords, Hill, Lampson, Mahoney, and Murphy were named in a leaked memo of 24 districts targeted by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

When it comes to the war on terror, the Blue Dogs folded on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) after a half-hearted attempt to stand their ground. On January 28, 21 Blue Dogs sent a letter to Pelosi asking her to move on the Senate's bill before some provisions expired. The letter outlined what should be included in the final legislation, notably immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the government after the September 11 attacks by providing surveillance information. Failure to pass such a measure, the letter concluded, "could place our national security at undue risk."

But in the end, they toed the party line. The final House version of the bill, which did not include immunity for telecoms, passed on March 14, by a vote of 213 to 197. Fourteen of the signers voted for it. Carney and Shuler were the only two freshman Blue Dogs who stood by their convictions. Lampson, who didn't sign the original letter, also voted against it.

FISA has become a "point of contention," said one Republican staffer, who predicts Republicans will have a "great amount of success" with the issue in moderate districts. In fact, the Defense of Democracies Action Fund started running radio spots in early April against Rep. Jim Matheson (UT-2), who signed the letter and then voted for Pelosi's bill, as well as TV ads in other states home to some freshman Blue Dogs.

The House Democrats' fiscal 2009 budget, which passed by a slim margin (212 to 207) on March 13, was $22.4 billion in excess of President Bush's request. "It's the same budget from last year with more spending piled on," absent reforms on earmarks and entitlements, said a Republican House aide.

The Blue Dogs "feel like they're an important part" of the budget outcome, one Democratic staffer told me in mid-March. But seven freshmen--Donnelly, Ellsworth, Giffords, Hill, Lampson, Murphy, and Shuler--thought twice about their constituents' response and voted "no." The only substantive Blue Dog agenda item adopted in the 2009 House budget was pay-as-you-go rules to offset spending. The Bush tax cuts, valued at about $683 billion, are not renewed under the plan, and a new $70 billion tax to pay for a patch to the alternative minimum tax is implemented, something Blue Dogs tout as an accomplishment.

But last year, Republicans managed to get an AMT patch passed without any offsets, at the time a $50 billion violation of pay-go, because of its popularity in the Senate, where it passed 88 to 5. Ultimately, 10 of the 13 freshman Blue Dogs voted for the patch without pay-go provisions; only Shuler, Hill, and Murphy held firm. The same thing may happen this year. Just last Thursday, the House and Senate budget chairs met with Blue Dogs to discuss alternatives in order to get final budget passage.