Left distrusts centrist push on pay-go rule

The looming “pay-as-you-go” spending bill is dredging up some old frustrations among liberal House members who’ve been thwarted at key junctures by the concept’s longtime proponents, fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has convened a series of emergency meetings to discuss the bill, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus will meet later this week to consider whether members will try to kill it on the floor.

“This Congress has to function for everybody — Blue Dogs, hungry dogs and lapdogs,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). “Right now, it’s a Blue Dog-dominated institution. I want to know what’s in it for the rest of us dogs.”

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Rush, an Obama rival from Illinois politics, is more blunt than most opponents of the bill, which would inscribe into law the often-waived House rule, commonly called “pay-go,” that new spending must be offset with spending cuts or tax hikes.

Most critics cite concerns that the budget ax would fall hardest on the programs needed by their most needy and vulnerable constituents, and not their frustration with Blue Dogs.

“I certainly don’t think anyone should vote against it for that reason,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “If they want to use it as a bargaining chip, that’s a different story.”

That’s what Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) did last week. He proposed a deal at the Democratic Caucus meeting: He’d vote for the pay-as-you-go spending bill, he told the Blue Dogs, if “each and every one” of them would support a government-run healthcare plan for the country.

“I was being playful but somewhat serious,” Rothman said.

Some liberal members have reminded Blue Dogs that they didn’t object to going deeper into debt to pay for tax cuts or to fund the Iraq war, hindering efforts to fulfill what many saw as the mandate from the 2006 election — ending the war.

Conservative Democrats also emerged as the chief resistance to House Democratic leaders’ effort to create a “public plan” in the healthcare overhaul.

Liberal opposition could stall or reshape the pay-go bill, which was rolled out two weeks ago by President Obama and introduced last week by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). The bill has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

It has 160 co-sponsors, but it is unlikely to get much support from Republicans — House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dismissed pay-go as a “thinly veiled attempt to raise taxes.” That means House leaders must rely on Democrats to get to the needed 218 votes.

Blue Dogs say opponents of the legislation are missing the threat that deficits and the debt present to the social programs they cherish.

“When the interest on the national debt is greater than domestic spending, they’ll wish they’d voted for pay-go,” said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog who represents one of the most economically distressed districts in the country. At last week’s caucus, Cardoza responded to liberal criticism by saying that Blue Dogs had strongly backed liberal priorities, such as extending health insurance to 11 million children.

And supporters also stress that the pay-go bill is not a Blue Dog bill, but a Democratic bill. There are only 52 Blue Dogs, so 108 of the sponsors aren’t in the fiscally conservative coalition. Among the co-sponsors are prominent members of the CBC, such as Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), the CBC’s budget chairman, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Supporters also include prominent members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus such as Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).

Liberals are weighing their support for Obama’s agenda against their distrust of budget-cutters.

“There’s a lot of sentiment against pay-go,” said one CBC member. “But we don’t want to appear to be coming out against the president.”

The CBC has held a series of emergency meetings on pay-go since Obama announced it at the White House. At one, the administration dispatched Rob Nabors, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and the first African-American to have served as the staff director for the Appropriations Committee, to make the pitch.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) says CBC members are worried about the deficit, too. But they also feel that their districts bear the brunt of budget cuts.

“We get hurt at every turn,” Cleaver said. “We get fewer earmarks because they say we’re in safe districts. With pay-go, the programs that get cut the most are the ones our districts need the most.”

Though the CBC doesn’t have an official position on the bill, he expects that Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) will take the lead for the caucus on pay-go.

“Any direction she travels, she knows she has 42 members standing behind her,” Cleaver said.

The Progressive Caucus will look at pay-go at a meeting later this week.

“We’ll be meeting and deciding what our bottom line is — do we vote against it or whip against it?” said Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). “For sure, we will try to make it better.”

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First they’ll be meeting with the measure’s most prominent liberal supporter: Miller, who will pitch pay-go’s long Democratic history. Miller himself first introduced it in the ’80s, and it was in place during the Clinton administration.

“Most of the things I strongly believe in did well during the Clinton administration under pay-go,” Miller said, citing education and protections for the poor and the environment.

Leadership aides also note that what has been introduced is Obama’s bill, and leaders are very open to changes. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) hinted at what kinds of tweaks might attract more liberals.

“It’s not against any highly held principle. I’m going to vote for it,” Gutierrez said. “But it’s going to have to be across the board — every aircraft that wants to get built, every bomb, every defense program.”