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Herseth Sandlin Goes to War as New Blue Dog Voice

“It’s not just a Blue Dog concern any more,” she said. “Blue Dogs ... are grateful that we finally have not only some wind at our backs in terms of public sentiment, but we have colleagues in our Caucus and Republicans who are now expressing the same amount of concern about the debt and deficits that we’ve been expressing for a number of years, regardless of who has been in the White House and who has been in control.”

She said the Blue Dogs have had to stick together to force leadership’s hand on several occasions and complained that too many bills have been hashed out in leadership conference rooms, typically dominated by liberals, rather than through regular order.

“We just have to be the squeaky wheel or we’re not going to get through that inner circle,” she said.

A House Democratic leadership aide defended the Speaker’s record of working with Blue Dogs and delivering items they wanted, such as a PAYGO law. The aide also pointed to extensive hearings and markups on energy and health care bills and said the biggest problem with getting jobs bills passed isn’t the legislation itself but the fact that bills are “stuck in the Senate.” The aide also noted that Blue Dogs who hail from districts with high unemployment rates have been supportive of the bills, even if Herseth Sandlin isn’t.

On the tax extenders bill, Herseth Sandlin said the Blue Dogs’ goal wasn’t to delete health funding extensions for the uninsured or other pieces of the bill but to put in place a shorter-term extension so they could be subject to better scrutiny and hearings, as well as offsets. Yet when the items were shorn from the bill, she said, the Blue Dogs got the blame.

“It is a messy way of legislating,” she said. “What leadership is starting to realize is that everyone needs to be included in these discussions earlier.”

The South Dakota Democrat said she feels increasing confidence that she is representing the center of American politics, which she said is too often lost in the battles of the extreme elements on both sides. “The center of America deserves a voice too,” she said.

And she said she believes the White House understands that the present fiscal course “isn’t sustainable.”

“How do you keep the foot on the gas in the short term to help grow the economy ... and at the same time build in discipline and reforms to take on the debt?” she said.

Blue Dogs won another victory in this year’s budget battles by extracting a $7 billion cut from Obama’s budget request — a level that will likely force cuts to some domestic spending programs treasured by liberals.

Fellow Blue Dogs say Herseth Sandlin brings the right temperament and a sharp mind to the cold calculus of cutting the deficit, with an ear for politics and the chops to hash out policy details with leadership.

“Stephanie is a star,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. “She’s come into her own. She’s got much greater confidence and a steelier backbone.”

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