Grow­ing group of mod­er­ate Democrats qui­etly as­sert­ing in­flu­ence in Con­gress

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY WIL­LIAM DOU­GLAS AND KATE IRBY wdou­[email protected]­clatchydc.com [email protected]

Pro­gres­sive Democrats have grabbed the me­dia spot­light in the House as the Democrats’ new power-bro­kers — but there’s a qui­eter, equally in­flu­en­tial party group emerg­ing: Mod­er­ates.

The Blue Dog Coali­tion, a group of 24 cen­trist House Democrats in­clud­ing Jim Costa of Fresno, is poised to be im­por­tant play­ers as the drama to end the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down un­folds.

The White House rec­og­nized the group’s po­ten­tial clout when it in­vited in­di­vid­ual mem­bers to meet with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump last week to dis­cuss the shut­down.

“Pres­i­dent Trump is will­ing to work with any­one — Demo­crat or Re­pub­li­can — on so­lu­tions to crit­i­cal is­sues fac­ing the coun- try, in­clud­ing the hu­man­i­tar­ian and na­tional se­cu­rity cri­sis at our South­ern bor­der,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman.

The Blue Dogs didn’t bite. “‘As soon as we open up the gov­ern­ment, I’d be happy to come over,’” coali­tion Co-Chair J. Luis Correa, D-Cal­i­for­nia, said. “‘I’ll buy you lunch. But, please, first let’s open up the gov­ern­ment.’”

The White House keeps watch­ing, know­ing that the Blue Dogs are ar­guably the most vul­ner­a­ble bloc of House Democrats, of­ten rep­re­sent­ing largely pur­ple dis­tricts.

Democrats cur­rently con­trol 235 House seats, mean­ing the party can only af­ford to lose 18 party votes since 218 is a ma­jor­ity.

That means the Blue Dogs hold the power to sink leg­is­la­tion, sim­i­lar to how the con­ser­va­tive House Free­dom Cau­cus vexed for­mer Speak­ers Paul Ryan and John Boehner when Re­pub­li­cans con­trolled the cham­ber over the past eight years.

Democrats win­ning or los­ing

a ma­jor­ity typ­i­cally hinges on mod­er­ates like the Blue Dogs. Of the 42 flipped seats in the House in 2018, 27 of them, 64 per­cent, were en­dorsed by the Blue Dogs or the New Democrats, an­other mod­er­ate group. When Re­pub­li­cans took the House ma­jor­ity from Democrats in the 2010 elec­tion, fol­low­ing the pas­sage of Oba­macare, Blue Dogs mem­ber­ship was dec­i­mated, de­creas­ing from 54 to 26.

Mem­ber­ship in the Blue Dog group is ex­clu­sive, mak­ing it more likely the cen­trists can unite on votes over the larger, non-ex­clu­sive group of Demo­cratic pro­gres­sives who have thus far dom­i­nated me­dia cov­er­age about House mem­bers.

“They have enough mem­ber­ship, with a ma­jor­ity that is not so ro­bust, that as a bloc they can make a dif­fer­ence in terms of pol­icy,” said Nor­man Orn­stein, a con­gres­sional scholar at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute., a Wash­ing­ton re­search group.

But don’t mis­take the Blue Dogs for the Demo­cratic ver­sion of the Tea Party-in­spired Free­dom Cau­cus, said Rep. Stephanie Mur­phy, D-Florida, one of the Blue Dog Coali­tion co-chairs.

“The dif­fer­ence is the Tea Party just wanted to say ‘no,’” Mur­phy said. “What we’re try­ing to do is to get to ‘yes’ and to im­prove that leg­is­la­tion so that it ac­counts for the di­verse per­spec­tive of dis­tricts.”

That hardly means the coali­tion will march in lock­step with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­i­for­nia, and her lead­er­ship team, said Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ari­zona, an­other Blue Dog co-chair.

“I think for the vast ma­jor­ity of is­sues, we’ll be able to find com­mon ground,” O’Halleran said. “But when we can’t, we have to make sure we are heard one way or the other.”

The Blue Dogs could be bat­tling the Demo­cratic pro­gres­sives for in­flu­ence in the party. The two groups clashed early in the new Con­gress over a sec­tion of the House rules pack­age which re­quired that new spend­ing be off­set by match­ing cuts or in­creases in rev­enue. Pelosi told McClatchy the Blue Dogs were “vi­tal” on that de­bate.

The pro­vi­sion, called PAYGO — short for “pay as you go” — was op­posed by Demo­cratic pro­gres­sives such as Reps. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, D-New York, and Ro Khanna, D-Cal­i­for­nia, who vowed to vote against the rules pack­age if PAYGO was in­cluded.

The Blue Dogs were equally adamant that PAYGO re­main in­tact and pressed its case to the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship.

“Just think­ing a lit­tle bit about this Con­gress — it’s an (18)-vote mar­gin and we are a coali­tion of 24 right now,” Mur­phy said. “As it re­lated to PAYGO, we gave lead­er­ship no­tice that if PAYGO were to be re­moved from the rules pack­age they would prob­a­bly lose the votes that would en­able them to pass it.”

The rules pack­age passed 234-197, with three Democrats vot­ing against it — Oca­sio-Cortez, Khanna and Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard, D-Hawaii (a 2020 pres­i­den­tial can­di­date). Three Re­pub­li­cans voted for the mea­sure.

“In the 116th Con­gress, the Blue Dog Coali­tion has al­ready been in­valu­able as a crit­i­cal voice for fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and for en­sur­ing that our bud­gets re­flect our val­ues as a coun­try,” Pelosi said.

The Blue Dogs have gone from a coali­tion of largely con­ser­va­tive south­ern white men who courted Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion en­dorse­ments, op­posed le­gal­ized abor­tion and gay rights to a multi-re­gional, mul­ti­cul­tural group.

Cur­rently, only five Blue Dogs rep­re­sent south­ern states. Mur­phy was born in Viet­nam, Correa is the son of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, and Reps. San­ford Bishop and David Scott are AfricanAme­r­i­cans who rep­re­sent po­lit­i­cally-mixed, racially di­verse ur­ban-ru­ral dis­tricts in Ge­or­gia.

“I don’t see this group of Blue Dogs as be­ing iden­ti­cal to pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions where you had a num­ber of peo­ple who were gen­uinely cen­ter­right,” Orn­stein said.

“I’d even char­ac­ter­ize many of them as prag­matic pro­gres­sives. They do not see them­selves as some purist bloc and they are not driven by some the­ol­ogy, which the Free­dom Cau­cus is.“

The Blue Dogs are meet­ing at the end of the month to dis­cuss pri­or­i­ties and strat­egy. But Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore­gon, a Blue Dog who sur­vived the 2010 elec­tion year, said he prefers to fo­cus on fix­ing the health care mar­ket­place un­der Oba­macare be­fore mov­ing for­ward on any Medi­care for all leg­is­la­tion.

“Af­ter we get that taken care of, then let’s talk a lit­tle bit,” Schrader said. “Maybe there are some things we can do. But fig­ur­ing out how to pay for it is crit­i­cal.”

JOHN RAOUX AP

Rep. Stephanie Mur­phy of Florida is a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coali­tion, a mul­ti­cul­tural multi-re­gional group.

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