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For Blue Dogs, up may be down

Despite their gains at the polls, the coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats may be put to the test by the financial crisis
/ Source: National Journal

To appreciate how much the economic crisis is scrambling the political battle lines on Capitol Hill, consider the plight of the Blue Dog Democrats.

The influential coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats saw their ranks swell on Election Day, and they stand to gain even greater clout with a White House alliance they spent months cultivating. Just days after his victory, President-elect Barack Obama reportedly assigned economic adviser Jason Furman to consult regularly with the Blue Dogs on economic issues. Speaker Nancy Pelosi acknowledged the centrists' new power when she said, a few days after her party gained 20-plus House seats, "The country must be governed from the middle."

But if Washington inched towards the Blue Dogs after the election, the Blue Dogs inched toward Washington when they elected to support Rep. John Dingell of Michigan in his battle to keep the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship over Rep. Henry Waxman of California.

Dingell's support for the multibillion-dollar auto industry bailout plan has made him a punching bag for both environmentalists and fiscal conservatives. In different times, such an issue might have been a nonstarter for the Blue Dogs. But today, there's more to consider, not least a likely recession in which many of the country's top job-producing industries are collapsing.

Analysts say Blue Dogs now find themselves operating in a drastically different environment, one in which their top goal of balanced budgeting becomes a lesser priority for recession-wary Democrats.

"This is the point at which Disneyland meets reality. Both Obama and John McCain were in Disneyland promising new programs and tax cuts. But we happen to be bankrupt with a global recession and massive debt and no clear prospects for a quick recovery," said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "So how is it possible to do all these proposed programs and yet remain faithful to the Blue Dog philosophy? It isn't. And I don't think anyone thinks it is."

There are signs that Blue Dogs might be revisiting their approach to the group's top priority, the House's "pay-as-you-go" rules. Recently, a leading member of the coalition, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, said Obama may not be subjected to the "pay-go" rules the Democrats established when they regained control of the House two years ago. "I'm not sure the old rules are relevant anymore," Cooper told Dow Jones News Service. "It would be unfair to the new president to put him in a budget straitjacket."

Cooper later said his comments were taken out of context. "Blue Dog Democrats are not backsliding," he wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal published Nov. 13. "We fight legislation that is not paid for and, although our record is not perfect, are batting well over .750. With more Blue Dogs elected to Congress this year, we hope to hit even more."

Blue Dog advisers said that the coalition's influence will increase, but that the current economic downturn may force them to revise their definition of "pay-go." As they did in the 1990s, lawmakers may write the rule to allow an exception for financial emergencies, during which the federal government can spend more freely.

"It's all a matter of defining pay-go. We're going to have to define pay-go going into the new Congress, and that's yet to be determined," said a Blue Dog aide. "It does mean 'pay as you go,' but there are different ways to do that."

Sabato, meanwhile, said Blue Dogs could hold considerably less sway next year because "they're not in a position to set the agenda."

"They have to see what Obama does and react to it," he added. "They want to vote for what he wants to see happen and then, six months from now, start complaining vigorously if the national fiscal house is still deteriorating."

The Blue Dogs are the most organized nucleus of moderates on Capitol Hill. This crisis will be a test of that.