Woof! Who Really Won the Hoyer/Murtha Showdown

Remember the Blue Dog Democrats? In the new Congress, you?ll be hearing from them a lot.

WASHINGTON — Steny Hoyer’s victory as House Majority leader not only signals an embarrassing defeat for Nancy Pelosi, but underscores the importance of the conservative Blue Dog bloc in the Democratic party. The Blue Dogs supported Hoyer over John Murtha, and Pelosi had gone out of her way to shut these party conservatives out of leadership posts, most prominently turning down the claim by the ranking Intelligence committee member, Blue Dog Jane Harman of California, for the chairmanship of that committee. The House Agriculture Committee may end up in the hands of a Blue Dog, Minnesota’s Collin Peterson, but that’s about it.

With the leadership battle, the 44 Blue Dogs may well have established themselves as the crucial swing vote for both parties on Capitol Hill. In the recent election, the Blue Dog Caucus picked up 9 new members. It was the Blue Dogs that John Murtha was addressing yesterday when he described the ethics and lobby reform legislation as “a lot of crap.”

In the last Congress, substantial numbers of Blue Dogs voted for the 700-mile border fence, supported the President’s surveillance program, voted to renew the Patriot Act, and backed increased oil and gas drilling offshore. Founded and led by Tennessee Congressman John Tanner, the caucus is made up of fiscally conservative Dems, often from border states, the South and West, who vote as a bloc and in the past have sided with Republican conservatives on budgetary matters. But they are of different persuasions when it comes to other domestic issues, taking the NRA line on guns, for example, but siding with organized labor on wages. Blue Dogs have joined the free floating coalition in the House against free trade. Harold Ford Jr. was a Blue Dog. Billy Tauzin, the Louisiana Democrat who jumped ship to the GOP in 1995, was an early Blue Dog leader, continuing a tradition launched when a similarly-minded group of Southerners in the House called themselves the “boll weevils.”

If the Dems pin their hopes for a working coalition within the party on Blue Dogs, the Republican minority back bench will fiercely fight to convert them or win them as allies.
In an open memorandum to House Republicans yesterday, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, and organizer of the right wing during the early years of the Reagan era, urged Republicans to not “hide” from their defeat, but instead get busy winning allies: “Our team lost. Begin to reorganize.”

“From a House Republican standpoint, the center of gravity should be the 54 Blue Dog Democrats,” Gingrich wrote. “If we and the Blue Dogs can find a handful of key things to work on together, we can almost certainly create a majority on the floor just as the Reagan Republicans and conservative Democrats did in 1981. Bipartisanship can be conservative and back bench rather than liberal and establishment leadership defined. What did the Blue Dogs promise to get elected? What was the nature of their coalition back home? They give us the best opportunity to create grassroots efforts to pass solid legislation. Remember, the liberals will find it very hard to write a budget acceptable to the grassroots that elected the Blue Dogs. We have real opportunities if we are creative.”

Gingrich’s scenario may be going a bit too far, says Eric Wortman, a spokesman for the Blue Dog Caucus, but, “We will work with Republicans if that’s the right thing to do.”

Blue Dogs are sometimes confused with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, of which both Bill Clinton and Al Gore were leaders before ascending to the White House, and where Hillary Clinton is today ensconced. But there are key differences. The DLC tends to be liberal on social and cultural matters, but is dead-set against a return to New Deal-style social welfare legislation. Unlike the Blue Dogs, it has supported free trade.


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  • James Ridgeway is a former senior correspondent at Mother Jones and a 2012 Soros Justice Media Fellow. For more of his stories, click here.