WASHINGTON — Conservative-leaning Blue Dog Democrats are enjoying a power surge like no other in their 15 years, forcing President Barack Obama and their own party leaders to deal with their demands for cost cuts and tax restraints in overhauling health care.
The evidence is everywhere these days: Polls show the public shares their concerns about the cost of Obama's plan to insure all Americans who seek coverage. Obama himself has spent valuable presidential time in private talks with these Democrats and in near-daily appeals for the public to prod Congress into action.
All the while, Obama and Democratic leaders have issued shout-outs to the faction of 52 House members, a sign of the clout Blue Dogs wield over some of the president's top priorities — none more than his plan to provide health care to virtually all Americans.
"I think, rightly, a number of these so-called Blue Dog Democrats — more conservative Democrats — were concerned that not enough had been done on reducing costs," Obama said Tuesday in an interview with CBS News.
That's a measure of validation for a group that spent its first decade being ignored by Republicans and tolerated by more left-leaning Democrats.
There was more.
On Wednesday, the Blue Dogs saw their organizing principle, a pay-as-you-go fiscal spending policy, pass the House by a 99-vote margin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called a news conference to praise the group. Her second-in-command, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, thanked them from the well of the House chamber and called the group "real Democrats" at a time when they are less popular with the party's liberal flank.
"How sweet it is," said Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, D-S.C.
Established when Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the mostly Southern Blue Dogs named themselves for an old saying: Southerners would vote for a yellow dog if he were on the Democratic ballot. A blue dog, they reasoned, would represent a moderate or conservative who had been "choked blue" by their more liberal Democratic colleagues in the years leading up to 1994.
Political descendants of the Boll Weevils who supported President Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and the states' rights Democrats before that, the Blue Dogs can now count members who represent districts as far from the South as California, Utah, Iowa and New York.
Nowadays, their power stems from the plain math in a House controlled 256-178 by Democrats. If the 52 Blue Dogs stick together and vote no on health care or any other bill Republicans oppose, the president's party doesn't have a majority.
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Still, it's not yet clear whether Obama, Pelosi & Co. are merely flattering the Blue Dogs with attention or truly willing to accommodate their concerns.
Pelosi said Wednesday she has "no doubt" that House Democrats have the votes to pass health care reform. The statement surprised many because the legislation hadn't been finalized and the Blue Dogs had apparently succeeded in shaping the outcome.
Their list of 10 changes they wanted made to the bill inspired Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to postpone a committee vote on it.
"I've been meeting to death, so if that has been for naught until they counted votes and just to occupy our time, I'm sorry," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La. "I thought we were legitimately having conversations about writing a good health care bill for America."
Health care is Obama's top legislative priority, an overhaul that could affect every American voter and employer and ranks in recent polls as the public's top concern.
But only half of Americans approve of the president's handling of the issue, slightly lower than his rating in April, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll released Tuesday.
More telling: The number who disapprove jumped from 28 percent in April to 43 percent, with Obama losing support from independents. And those who have confidence in Obama's ability to reform the nation's health care system dropped from 63 percent before his inauguration in January to 56 percent now.
The AP-GfK Poll, conducted July 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media, interviewed 1,006 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Obama's "yes we can" rallying cry is qualified somewhat by his ability to keep his party together. And that means a working alliance with the Blue Dogs even as liberals in the president's party pillory the group for holding up what they say is badly needed change.
House passage Wednesday of the founding centerpiece of the Blue Dogs' agenda, the "pay-go" policy designed to keep new laws from adding to the deficit, may be just a coincidence. But it also could be a carrot that Obama and Democratic leaders hope will attract some Blue Dog votes for the health care overhaul.
That bill appeared to be on track until last week, when Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, said it lacked steps to control the costs of health care in the future, one of the Blue Dogs' biggest concerns.
Meetings on the health care bill between the Blue Dogs, Democratic leaders and the White House are continuing. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., said he spent much of Wednesday in closed-door negotiations with Waxman and planned to resume them Thursday.
"We didn't get an agreement," Ross said after Wednesday's meeting, adding that Obama's goal to have a bill passed by mid-August wasn't part of the talks.
"I refused to discuss any artificial deadlines," Ross said. "That's not part of the talks."
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