Blue Dogs in hiding
For more than two months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has denied members of that chamber the opportunity to vote on one of the most important pieces of national security legislation before Congress this year. That legislation is a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in February that would grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies which helped the government monitor terrorist communications after September 11. So, House Republicans, led by Reps. Vito Fossella and Peter King of New York, are seeking to get around this obstructionism by employing a “discharge petition.” If 218 House members sign the petition, the House would get to vote on the issue no matter what Mrs. Pelosi says.
As of April 30, Mr. Fossella and Mr. King had gotten 184 members — all of them Republicans — to sign the petition, which began circulating eight days ago. But with Democrats comprising a 234-198 majority of the House, the discharge petition will fail unless at least 20 members of the majority party are willing to defy Mrs. Pelosi and the rest of the party leadership in order to sign — an act that could jeopardize a member’s political career (at least if he or she intends to remain a Democrat and a member of the House). The logical place to look for these Democratic votes is the House Blue Dog Coalition — a group of self-styled moderates and even a few conservative Democrats. Twenty-one Blue Dog members signed a Jan. 28 letter to Mrs. Pelosi urging support for the Senate bill, but the speaker ignored them. Three times this year, she has sent the House on vacation rather than allowing them to vote on FISA.
Before the House left town in March on one such vacation, the Democratic leadership rammed through on a 213-197 vote FISA legislation they knew that President Bush would not sign because it lacked retroactive liability protection. The leadership would have lost without the votes of 14 Blue Dogs who signed the Jan. 28 letter. What is happening is no mystery: The Blue Dogs are under intense pressure from powerful Democratic Party constituencies, including the trial lawyers, who see litigation against large firms like AT&T as a potential goldmine. The antiwar blogs (such as Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post and Daily Kos) have kept up a steady drumbeat of pressure on the Blue Dogs while directing vit- riol at any Democratic lawmaker who even hints at attempting to reach a compromise with the White House. (In addition to Blue Dog Coalition members, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is a particular target of their fire.) And finally, there is the Democratic leadership itself, which would be embarrassed if a discharge petition succeeds.
House Democratic leaders seem almost obsessed with punishing telecommunications companies. Last year, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell of Michigan, joined by Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a House member for more than 30 years, and Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, launched their own investigations of whether AT&T, Verizon and Qwest illegally disclosed customer records by complying with intelligence-agency requests for data. But even that’s not enough for the obstructionists.
The Blue Dog Coalition members — in particular those who signed the Jan. 28 letter — should stiffen their resolve. Following are the names of the 21 Blue Dog Democrats who signed the Pelosi letter but have failed to sign the discharge petition: Joe Baca (California); John Barrow (Georgia); Melissa Bean (Illinois); Marion Berry (Arkansas); Dan Boren (Oklahoma); Leonard Boswell (Iowa); Allen Boyd (Florida); Christopher Carney (Pennsylvania); Jim Cooper (Tennessee); Bud Cramer (Alabama); Lincoln Davis (Tennessee); Brad Ellsworth (Indiana); Tim Holden (Pennsylvania); Jim Matheson (Utah); Charlie Melancon (Louisiana); Dennis Moore (Kansas); Earl Pomeroy (North Dakota); Mike Ross (Arkansas); Heath Shuler (North Carolina); Zack Space (Ohio); and John Tanner (Tennessee).