Blue Dog Democrats Find More Political Muscle

This year's coalition is bigger and more powerful than ever.

House of Representatives Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks during a news conference along with members of the Congressional Blue Dog Coalition (L-R) Rep. Dennis Moore, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Rep. Mike Ross, Rep. Allen Boyd and Rep. Jim Cooper at the Captiol in Washington, D.C. Hoyer was endorsing the Blue Dogs' fiscally conservative proposals as the House heads into a major vote on the federal budget.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, appearing with some of the Blue Dogs, is their go-to guy in House leadership.

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Still, the "pay-go" measure is unlikely to be passed into law in the near term. And the House rule was sidestepped for both the $152 billion economic stimulus package and last year's alternative-minimum tax fix that cost the government $50 billion in revenue. An ongoing fight centers on whether the new $52 billion GI Bill will be offset.

House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio has charged that time and again, the Blue Dogs have capitulated to their party leadership's desire for "more wasteful Washington spending," deriding them as "all bark and no bite." The Dogs say the blame sometimes lies in the Senate, as happened when the House voted to pay for the AMT fix, but senators refused.

Thomas E. Mann, an authority on Congress at the Brookings Institution, says while the coalition has been successful in getting Pelosi to pay heed to their agenda, "the reality is with the 60-vote hurdle [to pass most measures] in the Senate, and George W. Bush in the White House wielding the veto, achieving their highest priority, which is taking pay-go seriously, is remote."

The coalition is rare for its rules. There is a cap on the number of voting members (currently at 20 percent of the House Democratic Caucus, but that's expected to be eased in November), and potential members are interviewed and must submit a paper on fiscal responsibility. Lawmakers who make the cut must attend at least 60 percent of the group's Tuesday 5 p.m. policy meetings. It's then that they vote on whether to take a stand on an issue, and members say topics such as guns, gay marriage, and abortion simply aren't on the agenda. Two thirds of members must agree before the group takes a stance. At 8 a.m. the next day, they pay for a breakfast at a Hill eatery to listen to officials from industries such as defense, energy, and telecom. "There's a long waiting list of people that want to come," Ross says.

The Blue Dog posters featuring the national debt, updated five days a week with Treasury Department numbers, soon will be disappearing from the corridors of the House office buildings. The signs are a casualty of a new policy banning hallway clutter so people can evacuate in an emergency, something which—in light of the looming crisis over how to pay for Medicare and Social Security—the Blue Dogs would argue is just around the corner.