The handful of the House’s Blue Dog Democrats who switched their votes from “no” to “yes” on the huge economic stimulus are working overtime this week in their conservative-leaning districts to explain the change of heart.
None more so than freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., whose reversal on President Obama‘s $787 billion bill secured him a top spot on the Republican Party’s list of vulnerable Democrats targeted for defeat in 2010.
Fending off criticism that the Democrat-led Congress loaded the bill with unnecessary spending, Mr. Kratovil will be out every day of this week’s holiday break touring his sprawling Maryland district and touting success in trimming frivolous programs from the package and highlighting the jobs it´s estimated to produce.
“Although this bill is still far from perfect, in a crisis of this magnitude we can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the necessary,” Mr. Kratovil said after the vote switch Friday.
Similar explanations are being offered by each of the five Democrats who voted against the original $819 billion House bill in late January but supported final passage of the $787 billion version negotiated with the Senate.
“Congress has done its part to provide desperately needed funds,” said Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, a Blue Dog Democrat who switched his vote. “Now it is up to state and local officials throughout Indiana and this country to ensure these dollars are spent wisely.”
They also are citing the bipartisan negotiations that shaped the final bill, although only three Republicans in Congress supported the legislation. Many Republican governors, mayors and state lawmakers supported the measure.
The final package, which Mr. Obama signed into law Tuesday in Denver, included slightly less spending and a few more tax cuts, though the income tax credit was reduced from $1,000 a year for couples to $800 to make room for the annual suspension of the alternative minimum tax.
Blue Dogs who backed the White House plan risk being viewed by conservative voters as tied to the Democratic Party’s more liberal leaders, such as Mr. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
“There is a difference between the salesman and the product,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Democrats arrogantly proclaimed that Republicans who voted against the stimulus package did so ‘at their own peril,’ but now it appears that in many Democrat-held districts, there could be greater risk in actually having voted for Pelosi’s pork-laden package.”
His counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jennifer Crider, said the Republican attacks about switching votes ultimately will not matter if the stimulus plan is well received.
“What they have been doing is going back to their districts and explaining why they voted the way they voted,” she said. “That’s what is happening in these districts around the country.”
While the Blue Dog coalition’s agenda is almost wholly focused on cutting spending and balancing the budget, members tend to vote with the rest of their party for spending increases, tax and budget analysts said.
“Toothless tigers is one way to describe them. They are more gums than teeth when it comes to putting a bite on budget deficits,” National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp said.
He said a survey of voting records from the last Congress showed that Blue Dogs propose three-quarters less spending increases than Democrats as a whole, but the Blue Dogs still vote for most of the spending increases proposed by others.
Of the 11 Blue Dogs who voted against the original House bill, six cast “no” votes last week against the final package. All of them were from conservative districts: Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith, both of Alabama, Colin C. Peterson of Minnesota, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Walt Minnick of Idaho.
Mr. Minnick, who offered a scaled-down $200 billion stimulus as an alternative, said the consequences of this bill “will be painful and possibly harsh for those tasked with the burden of paying for what has been passed.”
Minnick spokesman John Foster said the feedback from constituents has been largely positive. “Some folks wanted Walt as a Democrat to show support for the president, but the vast majority of our constituents approved of his decision to vote the district,” he said.
The stakes are especially high for Mr. Kratovil, though most of the five Democrats who switched their votes likely will be on the Republican Party’s hit list in the next election.
Mr. Kratovil, who won election last year by less than a one-percentage-point margin, is the first Democrat in 18 years elected to Congress from the district. It includes parts of three suburban counties - Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford - and all of Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore.
Only two of the 12 counties he represents went to Mr. Obama: Baltimore County and Kent County on the Eastern Shore.
Mr. Kratovil points to estimates that the bill will create 8,200 jobs in his district and to spending on programs popular with his constituents, whether it is health care programs that will benefit local hospitals or expanding broadband Internet service to rural communities.
Mr. Kratovil and Rep. Allen Boyd, Florida Democrat and a leader of the fiscally conservative 49-member Blue Dog coalition, issued nearly identical statements explaining their final decisions. Both cited, among other items, the elimination from the bill of $200 million to refurbish the National Mall in Washington, including sod, and $75 million to fight smoking.
Mr. Kratovil also listed cutting $400 million to fight sexually transmitted disease.
However, the anti-smoking and STD programs still could be funded with stimulus money going to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Democratic leaders stripped out many of the specific programs in the bill and replaced them with pools of money for agencies to spend at will.
“That’s not a given,” Kratovil spokesman Kevin Lawlor said of funding anti-smoking and STD programs. He said Mr. Kratovil would rather the money be spent at the discretion of the CDC than be prescribed by Congress.
• Donald Lambro and David Sands contributed to this report.