Blue Dog Democrats could play critical role in healthcare debate

WASHINGTON -- The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative House Democrats who largely hail from Southern and Midwestern states, could prove critical in passage of the Obama administration's healthcare policies.

However, some of the group's members, an organization that includes Georgia Reps. Jim Marshall of Macon and Sanford Bishop of Albany, complain that liberal committee chairmen are shutting them out of the legislation-crafting process. Last month, 45 Blue Dogs, including Bishop, sent a terse letter to the Democratic chairmen of the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means committees stating that the group felt minimized in the process, which is "especially concerning in light of the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues."

The coalition, which got its name when Former Texas Democratic Rep. Pete Geren said moderates had been "choked blue" by "extreme" Democrats from the left, cited the Senate's meetings with committee members and stakeholders to glean input and discuss options.

"We are becoming increasingly troubled that this process has yet to be structured in a way that includes the contributions of the majority of our caucus," the coalition members wrote. "A number of our members sit on your committees and we stand ready to work with you on possible options for reform."

Earlier this month when congressional leaders unveiled a draft bill, the proposal centered heavily on a government-run public health care option-much to the Blue Dogs' chagrin. There was also no mention of the public option being used only as a fallback that could be triggered years from now, a sticking point for many Blue Dogs.

"The Blue Dogs want to see healthcare reform happen, and we're looking to be productive partners in the debate," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who heads the coalition's task force on healthcare. "We have had a number of meetings with the committee chairmen and other members of leadership, and we will continue to offer our input as legislation makes its way through the House."

Blue Dogs like Bishop and Marshall say they remain flexible-to a point, but are adamant that reform not greatly increase the national debt. Many moderate Democrats worry about funding the costs of healthcare reform efforts, more than $1 trillion over the next decade by most estimates, and want a clear sense of how government-sponsored insurance would function.

"I along with all of my Blue Dog colleagues see health care reform as an opportunity to improve the fiscal and physical health of the country. And we would like to see health care reform legislation that takes advantage of this opportunity," Marshall said. "Moderate Democrats and Republicans are not going to pass anything that's really expensive. It behooves leadership to quit wasting time talking about proposals that are going to cost more money."

Though White House officials also met with Blue Dogs this month to discuss their concerns over healthcare reform, the Obama administration has made it clear that a public option will form the cornerstone of reform efforts.

"From this point forward, (President Barack) Obama would do well to calm the fears of some who believe that more deficit spending is on the way," said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report.

While influential committee chairmanships in the House are currently held by more liberal members, moderate Democrats hold considerable sway. Bishop sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The Blue Dog coalition and the similarly centrist New Democrats Coalition claim just over 100 of the House's 435 members. The group often serves as a moderating force in the House and members often serve as bridge builders between more mainstream Democratic and Republican positions.

However, there are times when the group's fiscally conservative ideology puts them at odds with the larger party. For example, in 2005, Bishop and most of the Blue Dog Coalition, joined Republicans in voting to limit bankruptcy protection.

"I believe the Blue Dogs will be pivotal in most of the issues Congress is dealing with and if we have consensus on a position there are a lot of votes to influence a particular issue," Bishop said.

Obama's support of statutory pay-as-you-go -- or PAYGO -- rules to match new government spending with budget savings elsewhere is seen as a move that will help pacify the party's more conservative wing.

"It was done partly for the Blue Dogs because they tend to be fiscal conservatives," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "They put an emphasis on spending and they are naturally concerned about what this healthcare plan is going to cost and the impact on the massive debt we're carrying."

Many of the Blue Dogs hail from districts like Bishop's or Marshall's, areas that are conservative-leaning and have sizable numbers of Republican voters. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government transparency, Blue Dogs often take positions that are favorable to the healthcare industry.

During the 2008 cycle, individual members of the Blue Dog Coalition raised a combined $6.24 million from the health sector. The average contribution to a Blue Dog Democrat in the 2008 election cycle was slightly higher -- $122,370 -- than the average contribution to a Democratic lawmaker -- $116,748, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

"Blue Dogs will have great sway in the House on how this legislation is ultimately written," Wasserman said. "Especially since this is Congress' bill to write."