On healthcare, Blue Dogs finally bite

The House's caucus of conservative Democrats has long threatened its party's leadership only to fall in line. But Blue Dogs are taking a harder line on healthcare.

Alex Brandon/AP
Henry Waxman, D-Calif., speaks after he and other Blue Dog Democrats met with President Barack Obama Tuesday, at the White House in Washington. Listening from left are, Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., left, Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., and Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

Even with 52 members, the House of Representative’s Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats has not had the political will or the numbers to defeat a bill it opposed – until now.

With seven key votes on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Blue Dogs have ground deliberations to a halt in that panel on the last piece of a three-part healthcare overhaul.

That’s why the White House and House Democratic leaders are pulling out stops this week to address Blue Dog concerns in time to make a self-imposed August deadline.

These range from the long-range costs of the plan to the impact of new government mandates on small businesses to "unfair" Medicare reimbursements in rural districts.

In what was seen as a move to reach out to the now-crucial Blue Dog caucus, the House Wednesday voted 265 to 166 to pass pay-go legislation, which would require the House to have adequate sources of funding for any new tax cuts or spending. Pay-go is a flagship Blue Dog issue.

“The Blue Dog coalition came together with the organizing principle of fiscal responsibility. We all owe them a debt of gratitude, because it has become the mantra of the Congress: We will not increase the deficit,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the House floor before the vote.

Republicans are tying to woo the Blue Dogs, as well. In a bid to attract those votes, Republicans, in their last chance to change the pay-go bill, put the Blue Dogs’ version of the bill to a vote.

“We are saying to those that are here that call themselves Blue Dogs that we want to work with you,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. “You hold the keys to this – and to health care next week.”

The bid failed, 196 to 234, though Republicans picked up 19 Democratic votes.

The Blue Dog caucus has a history of first opposing, then falling in line with Democratic leadership. The caucus opposed the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus plan and last month’s sweeping climate-change bill before relenting.

But the caucus has been making a tougher stand on healthcare. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chairs the energy panel, postponed markups on the bill on Tuesday and Wednesday because of rifts with the Blue Dogs, but has tentatively scheduled sessions to resume on Thursday.

After a three-hour meeting with White House officials and Chairman Waxman Tuesday, including about an hour with President Obama, Blue Dog negotiators said they were finding some common ground, but not enough.

“We are making progress; however, we have a long way to go,” said Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, who chairs the Blue Dog Caucus on Health Care, in a statement on the negotiations, released Wednesday.

“The Blue Dogs will continue to work constructively with the administration, Chairman Waxman, and members of the House and Senate to produce a bill that we can ultimately support,” he said.

In a press briefing Wednesday, Speaker Pelosi said that she was confident that the sides are moving closer.

“Some of the issues that the Blue Dogs have put forth are issues that we are all concerned about: reducing cost, reducing cost, reducing cost,” she said.

“We are making progress, and I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation,” she added.

One Blue Dog, Rep. Jason Altmire (D) of Pennsylvania, voted against his Democratic leadership on the emissions cap-and-trade bill, but says healthcare is a bill that must be passed.

“I’m not happy with where the bill is now. I think we’re heading in the wrong direction. But I do think in the end the concerns that are being raised are going to be heard and we’re going to get a bill that has widespread support,” he said.


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