Blue Dogs mull budget defection

Blue Dog Democrats might support a plan from House Republicans to cut $32 billion in discretionary spending this year, a spokesman for the fiscally conservative bloc said Monday. 

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said the Blue Dogs are waiting to see the details of the proposed GOP cuts before taking a position. The draft legislation from the House Appropriations Committee is due on Thursday.

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But the comments from Ross and other Blue Dogs suggest at least some of the coalition’s members are willing to defect from their party and vote for the plan despite the vocal opposition of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

Last week Pelosi rejected the GOP plan and said that $32 billion in proposed cuts “will come at the expense of economic growth and American jobs.”

“We must put our fiscal house in order, beginning with an aggressive attack on waste, fraud and abuse; but we must do so without jeopardizing targeted investments that are helping the private sector grow and hire new workers,” Pelosi said.

The Blue Dog openness to the GOP comes amid strained relations with Pelosi. On Monday, Blue Dog leader Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.), who challenged Pelosi for the job of Democratic leader in the 112th Congress, said the coalition has been shut out by the leader’s office.

“There has really been no communication whatsoever,” Shuler told MSNBC. “We still do not have any connection between the Blue Dogs and leadership.”

In perhaps the ultimate rebuke to the Democratic leader, Shuler said Blue Dog Democrats often have more in common ideologically with former President Reagan than with Pelosi.

Ross said the Blue Dog Coalition is using an annual issues conference this week to try and unify around a strategy for cutting spending and working with the new GOP majority.

“In the coming weeks, the Blue Dogs are going to be discussing cuts in more detail, and maybe we will be able to come to some type of consensus,” Ross said. “That’s what this issues conference is all about.”

The Appropriations Committee’s continuing resolution (CR) that would fund the government beyond March 4 is due on the House floor next week. Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) announced that spending in the CR would be capped at a level $32 billion less than current spending levels under a similar measure passed in December.

Ross said it is possible that Blue Dogs will offer their own floor amendment to the new CR that will detail the level of cuts Blue Dogs deem appropriate.

He said that the group has also not come to a unified position on whether to vote to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, although he personally needs to see spending cuts tied to any bill raising the borrowing limit. 

The Republican leadership has said it wants to tie spending cuts to the debt-ceiling bill, but has yet to make more specific demands. 

The 26-member Blue Dog Coalition met Monday in New York with former President Clinton to discuss ways to move a centrist political agenda through a divided Congress. Clinton advised the group on ways to handle the situation and discussed budget, housing and energy policy, Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) said.

“One of the reasons we invited President Clinton was he had to work with Republicans after the ’94 election,” Ross said.

He said that even though the coalition lost half its members in the most recent election, it might have more clout this Congress.

That’s because Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could have trouble winning the support of some Tea Party-backed freshmen. The Blue Dog Coalition could provide needed votes to move centrist bills through the chamber, Ross said.

“Blue Dogs have always been about bringing people to the middle,” Ross said. “If we can play a role … we are all about that.”

Coalition member Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) told reporters that the Blue Dogs would be looking to partner on ways to reduce burdensome regulations and lessen the negative impact of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.

Blue Dogs are wrestling to find the right balance between cutting spending and investing to create jobs. Democratic leaders have argued that cutting $32 billion in spending this year could harm the economic recovery.

The Blue Dogs will be focused this year on restoring fiscal discipline while looking to “jumpstart our economy and put people back to work,” Ross said.

Clinton told the group that he believes government should foster innovation to provide the economy with a “new game-changer that creates new types of jobs,” Matheson said.

Michael O’Brien contributed to this story.