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Bitter Blue Dogs Ready to Cut Deals

Bill Clark/Roll Call
From left: Reps. Heath Shuler, John Barrow, Mike Ross and Dan Boren, leaders of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, say they are still frustrated with Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and are willing to work with Republicans on issues such as shrinking the deficit.

Blue Dog Democrats remain deeply frustrated with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership and are signaling they are ready to break ranks and cut deals with Republicans.

In an interview with Roll Call last week, the leadership team of the fiscally conservative group talked about its vision for the 112th Congress — and its frustration over how Pelosi ran the 111th.

The California Democrat has yet to reach out to the moderate bloc since Democrats lost the majority, nor has she acknowledged any mistakes, they argued. Blue Dogs remain flummoxed over her decision to stay on as the party’s leader after she presided over what they consider to be a series of political blunders that led to Democrats’ historic defeat at the polls on Nov. 2, and most of them refused to vote for Pelosi for Speaker on the floor last week.

Blue Dogs have already started having informal discussions with Republicans in the hope that they can help forge bipartisan deals like they did between President Bill Clinton and the GOP after the 1994 Republican takeover.

“We have an opportunity that’s the same opportunity the Blue Dogs did with welfare reform,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), who co-chairs the Blue Dog Coalition’s political action committee and replaced retired Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.) as one of the Democratic Caucus’ chief deputy whips. “They were the bridge and they were the group that held that together in a bipartisan way to make it happen.”

Matheson said it is too early to say which issue will be this Congress’ equivalent of welfare reform, but he noted that creating jobs, helping small businesses and reining in the deficit are areas on which the Blue Dogs intend to focus.

Blue Dog Co-Chairman Mike Ross said the group can be the bridge between the parties in a grand deficit-cutting compromise.

“We would welcome an opportunity to work with this new majority and the White House on developing a responsible plan to put us on a path toward restoring fiscal discipline and accountability to our government,” the Arkansas Democrat said. “We think we’re the perfect group to do that.”

Ross also referenced the 1994 GOP takeover, which sparked the creation of the Blue Dog Coalition.

“You’ve got to remember that the Blue Dogs were founded in the minority, so whether we’re in the minority or majority really doesn’t matter to us,” he said. “What’s important to us is we believe — whether you talk about the debt or you talk about the economy — these are very difficult times. And it’s time for both political parties to put the talking points down and start finding ways to work together.”

Pelosi’s continued leadership, meanwhile, has the Blue Dogs looking to go their own way more than ever.

Pelosi’s aides point out that she has tapped Blue Dogs — including Matheson  and Blue Dog Co-Chairmen Heath Shuler (N.C.) and John Barrow (Ga.) — to sit on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee and that she regularly talks with members of the group on an individual basis.

In the minority Pelosi has “clear goals” that she will “work through all the Members of our Caucus to achieve,” spokesman Nadeam Elshami said.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza, who represents the Blue Dogs in leadership meetings and also co-chairs the PAC, voted against Pelosi in last week’s Speaker tally on the House floor. He said his vote against his fellow Californian was for the “60 ghosts that are no longer here.” Democrats lost the majority Nov. 2, and many of the losses came from the moderate ranks.

“I sat for three and a half years in the Democratic leadership advocating for positions that were more moderate and didn’t get listened to, and then saw this happen to our party,” Cardoza said. “Frankly, I was depressed about losing those guys. And the fact that our party doesn’t get that that’s profoundly a problem indicated to me that I had to send a very strong message yesterday when I got on the floor.”

The Blue Dog complaints over the 111th Congress start at the beginning.

Ross said the $787 billion stimulus package in 2009 was poorly drafted, with too much spent on tax cuts that most people didn’t realize they received and spending programs that didn’t do much to help the economy, as well as not enough invested in road and sewer projects that would have put people to work.

He also said that the cap-and-trade energy bill never should have come to the House floor when it was never going to pass the Senate and that the health care overhaul was far too complicated and should have been broken up into smaller pieces. More targeted health care reforms would have garnered bipartisan support and would have been easier to explain to the public, Ross said.

And above everything, Blue Dogs leaders argued, Democrats should have kept their eyes on creating jobs and boosting the economy.

“The economy was in the worst recession since the Depression, and four weeks after Obama was inaugurated, he signs the stimulus bill,” Matheson said. “At that point jobs and the economy went out the window. ... This isn’t hindsight. A lot of us in the Blue Dog Coalition were talking about that then.”

Ross said: “If our leadership had listened to us a little bit more, perhaps we’d be in the majority today. I hope our leadership understands more clearly now that the pathway to a Democratic majority is by electing conservative, moderate Democrats.”

He also criticized Pelosi for failing to name a Blue Dog to the White House’s fiscal commission last year, even though they had long promoted the idea.

Blue Dogs aren’t going to leave recruiting and fundraising for 2012 up to the Minority Leader.

“We’re the ones who are going to have to go and recruit,” said Shuler, who unsuccessfully challenged Pelosi for Minority Leader last year and secured 11 votes against her on the floor during last week’s Speaker vote. “A big part of what we do is to help build our coalition.”

Matheson said the Blue Dog PAC will be more robust in the 2012 cycle, focusing more heavily than before on recruitment and support of Blue Dog candidates across the country.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, earned higher marks from the bloc’s leaders for pivoting to the center since the November elections — something they said he needs to continue to do if he hopes to win re-election.

Matheson applauded Obama for acknowledging the “shellacking” that the party received.

“He recognized what happened in the election, he acknowledged it, he has shaken things up and he’s acknowledged that he might have done some things differently,” Matheson said. “That is a contrast to what our leadership has done after the election.”

Shuler said that for Obama to win re-election, he is going to have to reach out to independent voters, and that means moving more toward centrist Blue Dog positions.

“We feel that he has to align himself going forward more with us,” he said.

Rep. Dan Boren, the Blue Dog whip, said it’s too early to tell whether Obama’s shift to the center will last.

“It’s very early. If the next two years are like the last two years, he won’t be successful,” the Oklahoma Democrat said. “If he moves to the middle, works with independents, works with moderates within our Caucus [and] meets with Blue Dogs, he’s got a real good chance of being successful.”

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