WASHINGTON – Now that the results of the midterm election have demonstrated the strength of moderate to conservative Democrats in swing districts, the clout of the independently minded Blue Dog Coalition is on the rise, say political observers, and its bite could match its bark.
"They can cause fits for the majority leadership," said Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins. Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi "is going to have a lot of trouble holding that coalition together."
Democrats will hold 232 seats in Congress come January; Republicans will have 200, and three races are still undecided but looking to go to the GOP. With 218 votes needed to pass legislation, and 44 incoming Blue Dogs next Congress, according to the group, a strong voting bloc could make or break Democratic-sponsored legislation.
Haskins, a former Republican staff director for the House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee on human resources and former senior adviser for welfare policy for President Bush, said the Blue Dogs have the potential to derail Democratic plans that don't stand on solid bipartisan ground.
Democrats "can't hold their majority without them," he said.
"I think in the upcoming Congress the center is going to be a good place to be," said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "And with the ... balance of power as tight as it is — in the Senate certainly, and still decently in the House — those who play in the middle may be heavily courted because they can have great influence over votes, and therefore, legislation."
Blue Dogs — those who have been "choked blue" by demands for party unity — hail from all over the geographic map. They come from 24 states reaching both coasts and represent districts in some of the bluest states like New York and California as well as red strongholds in the Southeast and Midwest: Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, to name a few.
Their existence dates back to 1995, when Democratic moderates decided the party needed "a common sense, bridge-building voice" to negotiate with the conservative majority swept in to office during the 1994 Republican Revolution. Their primary objective is to be "middle-ground markers" who can lay the foundation "for the bipartisanship necessary to bring about fundamental reforms."
"The Blue Dogs basically came into being because of what they consider to be a lack of accountability in the Congress to the American taxpayers, with respect to the oversight, constitutional duties that Congress has," said Rep. John Tanner, one of the group's longest-serving members.
"The problem has gotten worse in the last four or five years. ... Now we have a chance to bring some business principles back to the government," said Tanner, who will begin his 10th term in Congress in January.
If Tanner is representative of the coalition, Blue Dogs are anything but knee-jerk votes in the Legislature. The Tennessean parted from his party's majority on the Estate Tax and Extension of Relief Act, which would have raised the minimum value of an inheritance that can be subject to the estate tax to $5 million from $3.75 million by 2015, and reduced the size of the tax. The bill died in the Senate.
Tanner also voted to back a military commissions bill that President Bush signed into law to set up a formal way to prosecute the terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay. A former JAG officer, Tanner said that while he did have some concerns over innocent people getting caught in the bureaucracy, overall, he believes the military courts offer a fair system of justice, and in some cases, are better than civilian courts.
On immigration, Tanner supported the House's Republican-sponsored get-tough bill last December. He said he didn't cast the vote as a repudiation of the more moderate "comprehensive immigration" plans being offered by President Bush and a Senate bipartisan group. Rather, he voted "just to get something on the table."
"You got to start somewhere," he said, noting that it's nearly impossible to arrest and deport the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Some of the upcoming issues confronting the 110th Congress provide big opportunities for Blue Dogs to seize. Ethics and accountability, for instance, are a high priority for the group that is likely to be addressed next session.
"When we were in the minority, it didn't matter much what our position was. ... But now I think we'll have more to say about it," said Tanner, who is offering a proposal to require government agencies either to produce financial audits or face congressional hearings with the possibility of losing their funding if they can't account for their spending.
Accountability is critical for a group whose own fundraising organization is considered one of the Democrats' strongest. With 280 active fundraising groups affiliated with Democrats or liberal groups in the 2006 cycle, the Blue Dogs were one of only 20 that raised more than $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"They are among the most active Democratic PACs out there," Ritsch said.
The group's fundraising arm, Blue Dog PAC, took in $1.1 million through the latest reporting period in the last cycle and they distributed $425,000 directly to federal candidates, with the rest going to other political organizations and consultants.
The political action committee's fundraising pattern continues to strengthen too. The PAC raised $261,597 in the cycle that ended in 1998. That number will have quadrupled at least for the 2006 cycle once all the paperwork is complete.
"They're raising more and more money, which can suggest both [that] they're being courted more and more, and they're growing their influence among fellow members by giving more money to them," Ritsch said.
The coalition has already scored one political victory. House Democrats have adopted a pay-as-you-go statement as part of their core goals for the 110th Congress, something that has been a perennial Blue Dog issue. According to the House Democrats' statement, no new tax cut or spending increase will add to the federal deficit.
The Blue Dogs' first public battle since the elections also demonstrated their strength, throwing their support to Rep. Jane Harman of California to become chairwoman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Nineteen Blue Dogs sent a letter to Pelosi in support of their fellow Blue Dog over Georgia Rep. Alcee Hastings.
Pelosi did not choose Harman, but she also passed over Hastings, and instead chose a former Border Patrol agent, Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes as the panel's chairman.
Haskins said he'll be watching the budget process to see how well Democrats play with each other. Congress will be looking to adopt a budget resolution in the spring that will lay out the plan for addressing the president's budget requests. A trimmer deficit would be a clue that Blue Dogs might be having their day. He said other big-budget items like education and welfare programs also will be ones to watch.
Current Blue Dog Coalition Co-Chairman Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has been quoted saying his group plans on working together with a group of moderate Republicans on pro-growth legislation. The next Blue Dog team will be led by Reps. Allen Boyd of Florida, Dennis Moore of Kansas, Mike Ross of Arkansas and Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota.
Haskins said on the budget and other economic issues, cooperation between the Blue Dogs and Republicans is "the kind of situation ... most dangerous for the Democratic leadership." He said Republicans are generally more unified and need fewer Democrats to defect to support their positions.
"It's a very simple concept. [Blue Dogs] are centrist. They don't necessarily agree with the far left. They don't necessarily agree with lots of new taxes," Haskins said.