Blue Dog seeking truce with liberals

A top Blue Dog is calling for a truce in the war of words with liberal members of the Democratic Caucus who have been firing off insults at Blue Dogs who slowed the progress of health legislation.

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In a closed-door caucus meeting Wednesday morning, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) called for unity and asked for the public criticism to stop.

“She said we shouldn’t be questioning each other’s motives,” said one lawmaker.

Blue Dogs are particularly incensed by the remarks of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), a liberal and senior Democrat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. On an August conference call, Stark called Blue Dogs “brain-dead” and asserted,

“They’re just looking to raise money from insurance companies.”

But another critic, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), said she had no plans to mute her criticism.

“Hell, no,” Waters said. “Progressives have a voice in this caucus, and we’re not going to back down.”

And one floor up from the basement meeting, NAACP President Ben Jealous told reporters that his group will be “organizing” in Blue Dog districts where minorities make up 15 percent or more of the electorate.

That doesn’t mean primary opposition, but it does mean meetings, letters to Congress and phone calls to the Blue Dogs’ offices. It is to be part of a broader NAACP campaign to support the health overhaul called 880. That refers to the 880,000 African-Americans over the last decade who would still be alive if healthcare reform had been enacted.

Both Waters and Stark are known as firebrands who are more than willing to call out political opponents.

But as a chief deputy whip, Waters is also a member of leadership, and she chairs a subcommittee on the House Financial Services Committee. In July, Waters called Blue Dogs “hypocrites” and hinted that they may face primary opposition because of their opposition to parts of the healthcare package.

And as chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Health, Stark is a leader on health issues in the caucus.
In July, seven members of the Blue Dog Coalition held up consideration of the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee by threatening to vote with Republicans to kill the legislation, frustrating liberal Democrats.

The bill got out only after nearly two weeks of negotiations with committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). He eventually forged an agreement to change the public option and cut $100 billion from the bill, and his panel was able to move its healthcare legislation just before the House adjourned for the August recess.

On the day they returned this week, the leader of the seven Blue Dogs, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), reversed himself and said he would not vote for a public option under any circumstances.

The criticism from liberal Democrats began when Energy and Commerce’s work was slowed because of the objections from Ross and other Blue Dogs. Amid the delay, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told reporters at a press conference, “We don’t think any one group in our caucus ought to be able to derail this.” And fellow CBC member Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) called the seven Blue Dogs “a non-diverse group” of white men.

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.

The fight makes life more difficult for House leaders, who are already working hard to find the votes necessary to pass healthcare legislation. At least 23 House Democrats have told constituents or hometown media that they oppose overhauling the healthcare system, and leaders can only afford to lose 38 Democrats if they are to pass a bill without any Republican support.