Politics & Government

Shutdown, health care, budget: How moderate House Democrats will influence the party

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, 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 country, 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 African-Americans 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 center-right,” 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.”

That was the same approach Blue Dogs took to Obamacare in 2009 — they insisted that the health care law had to be paid for before they would vote for it.

That will be a tougher task for Medicare for all, which doesn’t yet have an official cost estimate, though experts say expect it to cost trillions of dollars per year. Any vote, unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, could be particularly risky for Blue Dogs.

Schrader said a bill on clean energy that passed the House in 2009 but went nowhere in the Senate was a critical hit to Blue Dogs. Members who represented coal country and other parts of the energy industry negatively affected by the bill were largely voted out the next year .

“I’d argue by the end of the day the bill was much better, we added a clean coal piece to it, it didn’t wipe out the oil and gas industry,” Schrader said. “But by then the messaging had already been lost: ‘You’re trying to wipe out all the jobs in coal country.’ That was the end of the line for a lot of Blue Dog Democrats.”

While Pelosi, who was also speaker in 2009, wants to show voters what her party would hope to accomplish if they also controlled the Senate and the White House, she has to avoid votes that would cost these Blue Dogs — and therefore, her majority — their seats.

“A lot of our southern colleagues, they urged the speaker at the time to look at things slightly differently,” Schrader said. “That advice was not heeded.”

Blue Dogs and other moderates are likely to find a more receptive Pelosi this Congress given the make up of her Democratic majority, says Charles Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor.

“Clearly, she can count,” Bullock said. “If there’s something that comes up where the Blue Dogs hold the balance of power then she or somebody is going to have to talk to them and say ‘What’s it going to take to get your votes.’”

William Douglas covers Congress and politics regionally for McClatchy. A University of South Carolina alum, he’s also covered the White House and State Department in his stint in Washington. He’s co-host of McClatchy’s Majority Minority podcast.
Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.