Not so blue on ‘Blue Dogs’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Don­ald Lam­bro

The Repub­li­can Congress closes shop this month as Democrats pre­pare to take over the busi­ness and the spe­cial in­ter­ests try to fig­ure out what the changeover means for their agen­das.

With an army of lib­eral Democrats as­sum­ing power on Capi­tol Hill, you might think the leg­isla­tive prospects of con­ser­va­tive ad­vo­cacy groups and busi­ness lob­bies would be bleak next year. But that’s not how many of them see it at all. Pol­i­tics can make strange bed­fel­lows. And most of th­ese groups say they have long worked both sides of the aisle and they are ready to deal.

Take the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, for in­stance. The prospect of the right-wing think tank, whose ideas fu­eled the Rea­gan Revo­lu­tion in the 1980s, sit­ting down with lib­eral Democrats to talk tax cuts might sound far-fetched in the af­ter­math of a bit­ter midterm elec­tion. But Her­itage of­fi­cials say they are ready to find some “com­mon ground” with their ad­ver­saries. A se­nior Her­itage of­fi­cial said two weeks ago that “we are ac­tively solic­it­ing a chance to sit down and dis­cuss our ideas with them” and some Democrats tell me they are more than will­ing to lis­ten.

Let­ters from Her­itage seek­ing a meet­ing for a frank ex­change of ideas were qui­etly sent out two weeks ago to House and Se­nate Demo­cratic lead­ers, in­clud­ing in­com­ing House ma­jor­ity leader Steny Hoyer of Mary­land and Rep. Char­lie Ran­gel of New York, who will be­come the chair­man of the pow­er­ful Ways and Means Com­mit­tee. “Let me get back to you,” a top Ran­gel aide said when I told him about Her­itage’s re­quest. A halfhour later he told me: “He thinks it’s a great idea. He wants to hear dif­fer­ent opin­ions be­cause Congress func­tions best when you have more views ex­pressed. Work­ing for that mid­dle ground is one of his pri­or­i­ties.”

“We’re the eter­nal op­ti­mists here. We be­lieve there’s a chance to move a free mar­ket, smaller gov­ern­ment agenda for­ward in this en­vi­ron­ment. Many of the in­com­ing [Demo­cratic] mem­bers won their seats on the ap­peal that I would char­ac­ter­ize as one of lim­ited gov­ern­ment,” said Michael Franc, Her­itage’s vice pres­i­dent of gov­ern­ment re­la­tions.

“They talked of no tax in­creases on the mid­dle class, they wanted a bal­anced bud­get, and they em­braced the pay-as-you-go idea that if you fo­cus on the spend­ing side can be a won­der- ful dis­ci­pline,” Mr. Franc said. “Con­ser­va­tives should not approach this new ar­range­ment with an im­me­di­ate con­fronta­tional pos­ture. Rather, we ought to say we have a way to solve th­ese prob­lems, here’s what we be­lieve in and give the Democrats an op­por­tu­nity to ac­cept or re­ject that other way,” he said.

Her­itage is not alone in think­ing it could pos­si­bly have an im­pact on leg­is­la­tion in the next Congress. Lob­by­ing groups like the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness and the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers (NAM) be­lieve po­ten­tial al­liances be­tween newly en­larged Demo­cratic cen­trist blocs, like the Blue Dogs and the so-called “New Democrats,” could open op­por­tu­ni­ties for them to move some leg­is­la­tion in their di­rec­tion.

Bruce Josten, the Cham­ber’s chief lob­by­ist, thinks that on some is­sues, the Blue Dog cau­cus, which claims 44 mem­bers next year, and the New Demo­crat coali­tion, which will have 62 mem­bers, could be a for­mi­da­ble force on key votes. “I think there will be is­sues where Blue Dog Democrats could vote with sur­viv­ing mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans and join with the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can Study Com­mit­tee cau­cus on oth­ers,” Mr. Josten told me.

“How many Blue Dogs do you know who sub­scribe to [soon-tobe-House speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s views. None would be the an­swer,” he said.

Sev­eral ad­vo­cacy groups I talked to last week think 2008 elec­tion pol­i­tics will play a role in how the Democrats fi­nesse a num­ber of is­sues to demon­strate they can get things done in the nar­rowly di­vided Congress. “Be­cause both par­ties now will want to take ac­com­plish­ments to the vot­ers two years from now, it’s go­ing to force a new way of do­ing busi­ness in Wash­ing­ton,” said Jay Tim­mons, NAM vice pres­i­dent for poli­cies and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions.

“I think we’ll see some progress on our is­sues as Democrats at­tempt to find com­mon ground among non­tra­di­tional al­lies in prepa­ra­tion for the 2008 elec­tions,” he said.

Well, if this sounds like the “au­dac­ity of hope” in Barak Obama’s new book ti­tle, oth­ers see lit­tle or no chance Democrats, be­cause they are bought and paid for by the spe­cial-in­ter­est groups who fi­nanced their cam­paigns, will pass any of the con­ser­va­tive agenda.

“Tort re­form? Noth­ing the trial lawyers do not want will pass. La­bor law re­form? The unions own the Blue Dogs. They will vote against free-trade agree­ments be­cause the unions tell them to,” said vet­eran lob­by­ist Grover Norquist, head of Amer­i­cans for Tax Re­form. “If you can’t cross the trial lawyers or la­bor unions, on what is­sues are th­ese Democrats sup­posed to be mod­er­ate?” Mr. Norquist asked.

As for spend­ing cuts and deficit-re­duc­tion, “when they say they are against deficits, it means they are for higher taxes,” he warned.

Don­ald Lam­bro, chief po­lit­i­cal correspondent of The Wash­ing­ton Times, is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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