- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The conservative Blue Dog Democrats were top dog in the House’s negotiations of health care legislation Monday, but past revolts by this pivotal voting bloc usually ended with members bowing to the party’s liberal leadership.

The Blue Dogs, who hold enough seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee to kill the bill this week, spent the day in closed-door negotiations with Democratic leaders and pressed demands for more cost controls and greater protections for small businesses and rural areas.

“I would term them as productive meetings, but we still have a long way to go,” said Rep. Mike Ross, Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the Blue Dogs’ health care task force.

He said the group was playing a constructive role in shaping the legislation and this time would not cave in to pressure from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

“I’ve never seen the group so unified,” he said, adding that the group is “joined at the hip.” But he wouldn’t say whether the Blue Dogs are prepared to kill the bill - and hand President Obama a significant defeat.

The coalition has a record of threatening action but voting with the Democratic leadership after receiving, at best, modest concessions.

In eight key votes to raise taxes since 1993, most of the Blue Dogs ultimately sided with their party to support the measures, according to an analysis by the Club for Growth, a conservative group advocating low taxes and limited government.

In May 2008, all but four of the roughly 50 Blue Dogs voted for a spending bill that permanently expanded education benefits for members of the armed forces serving since Sept. 11, 2001, paying for the entitlement with a 0.47 percent surtax on individual incomes of more than $500,000 a year.

Earlier in 2008, just one Blue Dog - Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia - broke with Democrats to vote against overriding President Bush’s veto of a bill that expanded government-funded health insurance for poor children and raised the federal tax on cigarettes 61 cents to $1 per pack.

This time might be different.

Health care is much more of a high-profile issue, and the Blue Dogs’ credibility is on the line with conservative voters in their districts, said Andy Roth, the Club for Growth’s vice president of government affairs.

He called the Blue Dogs a “huge obstacle” and warned that Mrs. Pelosi should take their defection threat seriously.

“It’s easier to get away with the small votes when nobody is paying attention. The whole country is paying attention this time,” Mr. Roth said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they folded, but I think the chances of them standing firm are much higher than in the past.”

Blue Dogs appeared unyielding Monday. A prolonged private meeting with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, forced a delay of the hearing.

The Blue Dogs’ stance is effectively strengthening the Republicans’ hand in the debate by stalling the measure.

Republicans and Blue Dogs share some concerns, such as the high cost and potential tax burden on small businesses. But Republicans are expected to oppose the final bill, while a segment of the Blue Dogs - possibly a large segment - is expected to be persuaded to support it.

Mrs. Pelosi said she plans to follow through on a promise to deliver the bill before the recess, which begins Aug. 3, but softened that stance Friday.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Ken Spain said Democratic leaders are banking on the Blue Dogs’ return to the fold, noting that enough of the caucus’s conservative members got on board to pass the climate change bill by a two-vote margin.

“For those Blue Dog Democrats who voted for Pelosi’s national energy tax - how many times are they willing to put their re-election chances on the line for the sake of obeying their speaker?” Mr. Spain said. “Voting for a government takeover of the health care industry paid for by a small-business tax is not only a job killer, but a career ender for any Democrat looking to campaign on a mantle of job creation and fiscal responsibility next year.”

Blue Dogs such as Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and John Tanner of Tennessee already have been targeted by the NRCC as being rubber-stamp votes for Democrats.

“Tanner claims he’s conservative on budgets and spending,” said one radio commercial aired this spring, “but this year in Washington, John Tanner’s not voting like a Blue Dog; he’s voting like a lap dog - a lap dog for Nancy Pelosi and President Obama.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee, which began debate Thursday, is expected to continue markup until Wednesday.

The Blue Dogs, which number more than 50, have seven seats on the panel. They could defeat the bill if every Republican also votes it down as expected.

The bill passed two other House committees late last week after nearly round-the-clock debate.

All but one Blue Dog in the Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee voted down the bill. Three other Democrats voted against the bill in their respective committees as well.

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