Blue Dogs

The Associated Press - Blue Dogs building sway on the campaign trail - On a recent Saturday afternoon in small-town northern Mississippi, a little-known conservative Democratic congressman went door-knocking and restaurant-hopping as if his own career were at stake. He was campaigning for Democrat Travis Childers, who went on to win the GOP stronghold in a special election a few days later. "Hell, I wouldn't do this for myself," Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., who has served in the House for two decades, told Childers of the door-to-door effort.

Tanner and "Blue Dog" Democrats — conservative fiscal hawks "choked blue" by their party's liberal flank — are building their own political operation to propel like-minded candidates to victory this fall.In a year when Republicans are facing an exceedingly tough political climate, the small but determined band of centrists sees an opportunity to turn more GOP districts over to Democrats.

The clearest sign they may be right: the recent victory of pro-gun, anti-abortion Childers in a district President Bush won by 25 percentage points in 2004. That came just 10 days after a special-election win for Democrat Don Cazayoux, a lawyer and state representative, in a similarly conservative district in southeastern Louisiana that Republicans had held for three decades.

"Democrats are basically running as Republicans," shrugs Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the head of Republicans' congressional campaign arm. Cole said the Blue Dog strategy boosts candidates who are "running away from their party and running away from their national nominee." If they're successful, Cole said, the conservative Democrats could be in a tough spot next year, trapped between their districts and a liberal Democratic president and congressional leadership. "You can't say you're pro-life, pro-gun, want to cut taxes and control spending, and vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker."

That dilemma has already flared on Capitol Hill. Blue Dogs recently blocked Pelosi's plan to tack a multibillion-dollar GI education benefit onto an Iraq war spending bill without paying for it, thus adding to the rising deficit. The conservative revolt within their party forced Democratic leaders to cancel a vote on the measure and add a tax surcharge on millionaires to finance the program.

The group's name is a play on yellow dog Democrats, a moniker that emerged in the 1920s to describe party loyalists in the South who, it was said, would vote for a yellow dog if it ran on the Democratic ticket. Right-of-center Democrats banded together and took on the current name after Republicans swept control of the House in 1994. The 47-member coalition gained considerable traction in 2006, when the victories of its 11 freshman members — sometimes called Blue Pups — over Republican incumbents in conservative districts helped hand Democrats control of the House. Party leaders have been forced to tailor their agenda to some degree to the group's centrist views, particularly when it comes to budget and spending matters. The coalition has more than enough members to deprive Democrats of the votes they need to push through any piece of legislation over Republican objections, particularly given the party's slim margin of control — they control 236 seats to Republicans' 199.

They've raised $1.8 million through their political action committee — the most of any leadership PAC — and plan to give the maximum $5,000 allowable by law to all their members and those they've endorsed, as well as their members' and prospects' state parties.

Nonetheless, Democratic leaders welcome their help despite the fact that the candidates Blue Dogs cultivate are likely to complicate appeals to the party's liberal base. "At the end of the day, it means more people supporting our agenda," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., his party's congressional campaign chief. "If you have a Republican in that seat, you don't get a vote on any issue. If you have a Democrat, you have an opportunity at least to get their vote."

Human Events - Blue Dog Blues by Robert Novak - Conservatives rationalized on May 13 when Republicans lost their third consecutive special Congressional election, in the supposedly safe 1st District of Mississippi. After all, they said, the victorious Democratic candidate Travis Childers, sounded more conservative during the campaign than his losing Republican candidate. He was a county official, a good old boy who the voters figured would be an independent conservative vote in the House as one of the Blue Dog Democrats.

But once in Washington, he drank the Democratic leadership’s Kool Aid. In the first 13 House roll calls contested along partisan lines after Childers took his seat in Congress, he voted with the Democrats 12 times.

Childers fit right in with the Blue Dogs elected in 2006 to give Democrats control of the House after a dozen years of a Republican majority. They won office by campaigning as independent conservatives. But in the House starting in January 2007, they have voted the Democratic line -- with no exceptions -- more than 80 percent of the time.

The Blue Dogs are different in kind than the old “Redneck Caucus” or the “Boll Weevils” -- genuinely conservative Democratic members of Congress from the South who constituted a virtual third party on Capitol Hill for half a century beginning in the mid -1930s. They collaborated so often with the Republicans in frustrating liberal initiatives, frequently proposals by a Democratic president, that the usual massive Congressional majorities were illusory.

But the South’s seats in both House and Senate once held by Boll Weevils are now mostly occupied by Republicans. The Blue Dogs come from all over the country, from districts generally conservative but not traditionally or firmly Republican. Their profile: hard-line on immigration and terrorism, highly critical of President Bush’s war policy, pro-gun and usually pro-life, contemptuous of Republican deficit spending. They pledged they would not be beholden to Nancy Pelosi in Congress.

But as House members, the Blue Dogs from the Class of ’06 have followed the Pelosi line. In HUMAN EVENTS of April 18, 2007, I tracked 10 of them who consistently voted as Speaker Pelosi wants. A survey of their performances since then shows they have not changed. Most are usually dependable votes for the majority party on issues where the leadership cracks the party whip.

Such a vote came this year on the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which Pelosi has made a test of her authority. The staunchest pro-U.S. leader in Latin America is Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, who is fighting an insurrection backed by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Yet, my selected ‘06 Blue Dogs voted 9 to 1 against the trade agreement.

What is clear is that Blue Dogs are neither conservatives nor independents. They only campaign that way. They are hoping that in November they can ride through the current political ethos for at least another two years.

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