WASHINGTON — Moderate Democrats could hold the key to the fate of President Barack Obama's agenda this year.
They have the numbers to be decisive in the House of Representatives — the 51-member Blue Dog Coalition could doom an initiative if it sticks together, since Democrats control 256 seats, it takes 218 votes to win, and no Republicans have voted for major Democratic budget bills this year.
So far, though, it's debatable how much sway the Democratic centrists have had.
They declared victory last week when they got written promises from Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that they'd support paying for major new spending measures with offsetting spending cuts or higher taxes to avoid driving deficits even higher.
The Blue Dogs also claimed victory in helping derail an effort to change Senate rules to make it easier to cut off debate on global warming legislation. Moderates wanted a full airing of an issue that many fear could mean higher energy costs or burdens on hometown industries.
Critics, however, find those minor victories. The Obama-Pelosi pledge was a promise that, in the heat of battle this fall, could be easily skirted.
"It's hard to be effective on deficits with the economy in a deep slump," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.
The emissions policy was also pushed by influential senators from both parties.
Even so, there's no doubt that the Blue Dog Coalition is full of potential.
"They're all afraid of us. Fear of us is its own motivator," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
And they're not afraid to be ornery.
"I'm here to represent my constituency. I'm not here to represent anyone in the leadership," said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine.
Still, Cooper conceded, so far it's hard to say where the coalition has made a difference.
"Often idealism clashes with reality," he said. "I'd like to think if we weren't there, things would be worse."
The Blue Dogs formed 14 years ago, as the dwindling number of conservative and moderate Democrats decided they could be more effective as a bloc. Their name came from one of two sources.
Some attribute it to the paintings of Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, whose paintings of blue dogs were fixtures in some lawmakers' offices. Another explanation is that former Rep. Pete Geren, D-Texas, coined the term after observing that "Yellow Dog Democrats," generally Southerners who'd rather vote for a yellow dog than a Republican, had been "choked blue" by party liberals.
Today, members come from all over the nation, though most tend to be from the South. They share a common interest in fiscal discipline, though they tend to diverge on other issues.
There are two views of how much clout they have at the moment.
One version is that they've done well. "The number one point of concern is we need enforceable budget discipline," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., and they got that assurance from the top.
"Creating a new non-emergency tax cut or entitlement expansion would require offsetting revenue increases or spending reductions," Obama pledged in an April 24 letter.
Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., went further four days later, writing that the concept would be used for four bills affecting middle class tax cuts, alternative minimum tax relief, estate tax provisions and changes in the Medicare rate for doctors.
"If those criteria are not met," Hoyer said later, "we will not bring that legislation to the floor."
Critics, however, noted that such a pledge could set up a dangerous showdown. Suppose the Senate does not go along with the agreement — would it then be doomed in the House?
Blue Dogs think so.
"I hope this is a confidence-building step we can use to help address other issues,' said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.
Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, warned, however, that "Pelosi doesn't control the Senate, and neither does Obama. They can say 'We're on your side,' but delivering results is another matter entirely."
Even in the House, it's unclear what the Blue Dogs can deliver.
On budget issues, for instance, holding the coalition together has been tough. Earlier this year, the group urged lawmakers to freeze nondefense discretionary spending, which includes most popular domestic programs, at the rate of inflation, which is virtually zero.
Instead, Congress last week approved a budget with an increase of about 2.9 percent over the next five years. Seventeen Democrats, including 13 Blue Dogs, opposed the measure.
"We were handed a historic debt by the previous administration, and with recent spending measures, this budget does not improve the situation and will only bring us back to where we started in January," explained Rep. Parker Griffith, D-Ala.
Democratic leaders face another problem: Many of the moderates come from the most politically vulnerable congressional districts. Many were first elected in 2006 and 2008, when a Democratic tide swept the country.
No one knows if that momentum will continue in 2010; moderate members may have to show some independence from the White House and Pelosi.
One way to do that is to stick with other moderates and show that a centrist view will be heard, especially on thorny issues such as health care, Michaud said. But can Blue Dogs put aside their demand that a costly overhaul not be fiscally irresponsible?
Hard to say, Cooper said. "Often," he said, "idealism meets reality."
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