Waters warns Blue Dogs to beware 2010

Liberal frustration started to boil over in the House on Tuesday as negotiations over healthcare reform with centrist Blue Dog Democrats dragged into a second week.

The delay prompted Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) to lash out at the Blue Dogs as hypocritical and even hint that more liberal Democrats might challenge them in primaries.

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“On the one hand they don’t want to spend money, but on the other hand they want to spend money when it benefits them or their district,” Waters said on MSNBC, referring to Blue Dogs’ demand to increase Medicare reimbursements for rural physicians.

Seven Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have effectively blocked the panel from working on the bill for more than a week, saying it’s too expensive and puts too much of a burden on small employers.

Asked if she would recruit more liberal candidates to run against Blue Dogs, Waters said, “That’s normally not done.”

But she added: “There may be people out there listening and observing all of this who may get motivated based on what they’re seeing and throw their hat into the ring.”

She also criticized White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for recruiting many of the House’s more conservative members when he headed the House Democrats’ campaign arm. Now, she said, “The chickens are coming home to roost.”

Waters is known as a firebrand who isn’t afraid to stir up controversy in her own party. But she is also a member of leadership, as a chief deputy whip, and chairs a subcommittee on the House Financial Services Committee

Her remarks were an escalation from more veiled remarks from liberals last week, such as Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Barbara Lee’s (D-Calif.) saying, “We don’t think any one group in our caucus ought to be able to derail this.”

The comments ended a truce of sorts that has existed since Democrats took power in 2007 aiming to end the Iraq war by cutting off funding. Waters was a founding member, along with Lee, of the Out-of-Iraq caucus, which was frustrated by the unwillingness of centrist Democrats, particularly Blue Dogs, to support cutting off funds.

Liberals grumbled privately at the time that Blue Dogs were willing to spend hundreds of billions on the war but not on social programs. But they never went public with their criticism.

Attempts to get comments from a spokeswoman for the Blue Dogs and the spokesman for Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) were unsuccessful.

The tongue-lashing by Waters follows criticism by liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on Monday that “the Blue Dogs aren’t making sense,” as well as Rep. Hank Johnson’s (D-Ga.) comment that the seven Blue Dogs are “a non-diverse group” of white men.

Other liberal Democrats on Tuesday expressed irritation that Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had made an offer to Blue Dogs on his panel without informing other committee members.

One panel member, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), said that Waxman is in danger of losing the votes of liberals like herself and other supporters of a public option in the negotiations.

“There’s a point where you lose New Dem and Progressive votes on the bill,” Baldwin said. “Some of the proposals they’re bringing forward would have the net effect of weakening the public option.”

The seven Blue Dogs took the offer from Waxman — which they described as a “watered-down” version of their demands — to the entire Blue Dog Coalition on Tuesday morning. But they had not decided by press time whether to accept that offer or to send Waxman a counterproposal. After spending the morning with their membership, they spent the afternoon holed up with Emanuel, Waxman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the Speaker’s office.

The small group of Blue Dogs remain hung up on a number of items, including the cost of a public healthcare option and the need to see the eventual bill bring down government spending on healthcare.

Liberals were also less than pleased to learn the Senate Finance Committee has abandoned plans for a public option and an employer mandate.

“The Senate can dance to their own tune,” said Progressive Caucus Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). “There will be no voting for a bill that doesn’t have a robust public option.

“We’re not doing this in the House to have the Senate muck it up,” she said, noting that she had just come from a meeting with Pelosi where the Speaker had reaffirmed her commitment to a public option.

President Obama appeared to do much the same a little later in the day, when at a town hall meeting he said it makes sense to have a public option to compete with private plans in order to keep healthcare costs down.

House leaders also worked to prepare freshman lawmakers for a recess likely to be filled with protests and television advertisements from opponents of Obama’s drive for a healthcare overhaul. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, briefed the freshmen on polls and messaging to help sell the legislation.