WASHINGTON — The diminished Blue Dogs are hoping to get their Capitol Hill bite back.
Three months after the November election that slashed their numbers, and one month after losing a symbolic challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, members of the moderate Democratic coalition insist they are more relevant than ever.
"We still believe moderation is important, and we have to move toward that course," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said Monday. "We're looking to make sure that people know that there are moderates in Congress."
Following a day-long New York City retreat, in which they hatched strategies and were addressed by former President Bill Clinton, the House Blue Dogs vowed to focus on issues like regulatory reform and deficit control. Where possible, they said, they'll work with politically amenable House Republicans.
"We have to look at different ways of being relevant," Cardoza said.
Some of the Blue Dogs had deliberately avoided the official House Democratic retreat, held earlier this year. At their own event held at the Loews Regency Hotel, which was to include a fundraiser, the lawmakers huddled with some nonpartisan groups such as the budget-balancing Concord Coalition.
"(It was) a very good and interesting presentation," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said by e-mail.
Cardoza and Costa are two of the 26 remaining members of the Blue Dog Coalition. Before November's election swept Republicans back into control of the House, the coalition claimed 53 members.
The Blue Dog pack is shrinking even farther, to 25, on Tuesday, with the expected announcement by Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, that she is resigning to become president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Most of the widespread losses in 2010 reflected the fact that Blue Dogs generally represent conservative, often-rural areas where Republicans gain easy traction. Though Costa and Cardoza both won re-election, they spent a combined $3.2 million to do so.
The two San Joaquin Valley lawmakers have since been distancing themselves more explicitly from Pelosi's liberal Democratic leadership. Cardoza stepped down from the Pelosi-appointed House Rules Committee, and as a protest nominated Costa for House Democratic leader last month.
Costa returned the favor, nominating Cardoza. They were among the 19 House Democrats not to publicly vote for Pelosi as leader on the first day of the 112th Congress.
Earlier, in a secret ballot in November, 43 House Democrats voted against Pelosi and for a Blue Dog, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C. Pelosi, in turn, has seemingly shunned the dissidents, some lawmakers say.
Since being founded by then-Rep. Gary Condit of Ceres and other rural Democrats in 1995, the Blue Dogs have struggled with mixed success to flex their muscles. Their basic argument has remained the same for 15 years: as centrists, they are well positioned to work across the aisle.
"We weren't nearly as effective in the majority as I think we'll be in the minority," Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., said Monday.
Cardoza added that "there will be a number of votes" in which Republican leaders may have trouble rallying their own tea party activists, in which case the moderate Democrats can step in to cut a deal. An early test could come when the House must vote on whether to extend the nation's debt ceiling.
"We are the only group that tries on a regular basis ... to find bipartisan solutions," Costa said.