Blue Dog stand forces Pelosi to back down

When conservative Blue Dog Democrats balked on healthcare reform throughout July, there were whispers on Capitol Hill that they would cave to Speaker Nancy Pelosi as they had before. It didn't happen.

In a showdown of wills, the Blue Dogs held strong and forced Pelosi to blink.

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After years of bending on issues ranging from the Alternative Minimum Tax to Medicare physician payment reimbursement to the $787 billion economic stimulus, Blue Dogs barked and their threat to bite was taken seriously by leadership officials.

Unable to broker a deal with Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee, Pelosi and others in leadership considered bringing their healthcare reform bill straight to the floor. But that idea was shelved as leadership realized that move would give dozens of centrist Democrats a reason to reject the bill and embarrass them and President Barack Obama.

“It had gotten to the point where we needed to significantly push back,” a Blue Dog lawmaker said. “First against the Speaker, but second against Obama.”

It hasn’t been a fun six months for the Blue Dogs.

After watching Obama win the Democratic primary and cruise to the White House, and listening as their Speaker pledged to “govern from the center,” Blue Dogs have watched their leaders in the House steer the president’s ideas sharply to the left.

They haven’t been happy about it. But they haven’t really stood in the way, either.

Until now.

In an op-ed that ran in The Wall Street Journal this week, Merrill Matthews of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance noted that only 10 Blue Dogs opposed Obama’s stimulus, 14 bucked his budget and 29 rejected the climate change bill.

Obama backed the Blue Dogs’ pay-as-you-go legislation, which has passed the House but is unlikely to pass the Senate.

The Blue Dogs’ derailing of the Waxman-Rangel-Miller healthcare bill marks the first time this Congress that the group has really flexed its muscles and followed through by maintaining unity among its 52-member group.

“It was time,” a Blue Dog Democrat said. “This was a bridge too far.”

As a result of blocking a July vote on the healthcare bill and forcing House leaders and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to swallow a number of demands that have sent the liberal base of the Democratic Caucus into a tizzy, the Blue Dogs denied Obama a pre-August vote on a House healthcare bill, which was a marker the president had laid down.

But if you ask them, the Blue Dogs say they did it in defense of the president.

“Look, we came to the table looking for ways to significantly squeeze cost out of the inefficient healthcare system we have,” Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dogs’ lead negotiator, said on Wednesday after he and four other Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee finally got Waxman to concede to their changes. “That was an idea the president put forward, not us.”

For Ross and others, the need to get Waxman to the negotiating table came when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that the Waxman-Rangel-Miller bill failed to significantly rein in healthcare costs.

That was also when the Blue Dogs decided they had seen enough from their leaders in the House.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm on this for three months,” Ross said when he announced that seven Energy and Commerce Blue Dogs would block the House bill, which came right after CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf dropped his bombshell about the measure. “There wasn’t enough cost containment in the House bill.”

By then, though, the Blue Dogs had already picked up the theme of the first six months of 2009: Obama would put forward a proposal, the Democratic-controlled Congress would take it up, and by the time it got back to the president’s desk it was a shell of its former self, having been co-opted by the liberal instincts of the Speaker and her loyal committee chairmen.

They saw it happen even as far back as Obama’s most immediate priority: a $700 billion economic stimulus bill that was supposed to be composed largely of infrastructure spending but became laden with individual appropriations projects, grew in price and ended up passing the House with zero Republican support.

Ten Blue Dogs were among the 11 Democrats who voted against the president and their Speaker on the House stimulus bill. It was far from enough to kill the bill, even though many more Blue Dogs weren’t happy with the end product.

Veteran Blue Dog Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), one of the 10 who voted no, summed up the group sentiment.

“His bill was fine,” Cooper said, referring to Obama. “Congress messed it up.”

Of course, the president hadn’t actually put forward a specific stimulus bill. He didn’t put forward a climate change proposal, either. Or a detailed healthcare bill.

Obama has chosen to leave the dirty work of writing legislation to Congress, preferring to stay above the fray while maintaining support for broad proposals that could be translated to paper in dozens of different ways.

To many in leadership, the Blue Dogs were able to stay true to the president’s healthcare “goals” because he didn’t really have many specific ones — contrary to President Clinton.

And aides who have been close to the tense negotiations between Waxman, the Blue Dogs and leaders say the White House didn’t really weigh in one way or another as the sides worked toward an agreement that could dislodge the bill from Waxman’s committee.

Asked why they chose healthcare to make their stand, Blue Dogs said it was time to stand in between Obama and their leaders in the House.

“In discussions that we had with people in the administration, they felt that these issues were very important and wanted to see them put into the bill,” said Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), one of the four Blue Dogs who earned Waxman’s support in committee for a series of amendments that would cut $100 billion from the bill, increase exemptions for small businesses, separate a “public option” from Medicare reimbursement rates and allow regional health “co-ops” to compete with the private insurers and any eventual public plan.

But Hill also spoke about how, more so than climate change or even the stimulus bill, the Waxman healthcare bill threatened the core Blue Dog principles of fiscal conservatism.

“It’s the magnitude of the issue,” Hill said. “I mean, this is huge. This is Social Security, this is Medicare — that’s how big this issue is. And we need to get it right. And part of getting it right is making sure we start this thing off by getting costs under control. So these things became very, very important to us.”

Tying that stand to Obama is convenient for the Blue Dogs, most of whom come from areas in which Obama remains popular but Pelosi is viewed very negatively, Democratic aides said.

“That’s what they need to say back home, and it works for them,” a leadership aide said.

Publicly, Obama seems to be playing along with their plan, at least for now.

“I'm especially grateful that so many members, including some Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee, are working so hard to find common ground," the president said on Wednesday.

At the end of the day, Obama, the Blue Dogs and those who nudged them and Waxman toward an agreement may simply be taking the pragmatic route.