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Understanding the “Blue Dog” Democrats


Blue Dog Democrats are dragging their paws…And Blue Dog, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, is leading the pack in its “in-your-face” opposition to Speaker Pelosi’s determination to move healthcare legislation quickly. The Blue Dogs’ clout arises from the fact that, given Republicans’ solid opposition, they can topple the Administration’s healthcare legislation. The Blue Dog Coalition formed in 1994, after the Democrats’ huge loss of Congressional seats. Some representatives believed Democratic losses stemmed from a drift to the left.

Mostly Southerners, they decided to take an old term “yellow dog,” which referred to Southern Democrats so loyal they would vote for a yellow dog if it ran on the party’s ticket, and turn it around. One of the founding members, Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, had paintings of blue dogs in his office. The lawmakers joked about it, saying that they actually were yellow dogs, but they’d been “choked blue” by the party’s liberals…and so they became the “blue dog” Democrats. It is interesting to note that Rep. Tauzin later switched to the Republican.

The Blue Dogs’ numbers expanded with the election of moderate Democrats whose conservative views won voters in large numbers, facilitating the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2008. The coalition retains a Southern sensibility but many of its members now come from other areas. Nineteen members, called “Blue Pups,” won seats in the past two elections…and now the Blue Dogs alone hold 52 seats in the House.

As long ago as May, the Blue Dogs complained of being shut out of the healthcare debate. In a sharp letter to Democratic leaders, they wrote they were “increasingly troubled” by their exclusion. House Speaker Pelosi and others set up a flurry of meetings then—and just last week with President Obama and them, but they still are not satisfied—especially not their “alpha” Blue Dog on health care, Rep. Ross of Arkansas. A former drugstore owner, Ross leads a block of seven Blue Dogs on the Energy and Commerce Committee—more than enough to delay any legislation. The question now is whether Democratic leaders could bypass the committee and take the bill directly to the House floor. If they do—and if they succeed—the Blue Dogs almost surely will be even more alienated…and even more likely to make common cause with Republicans.

So what does all this mean for nurses, nursing and health care? The Blue Dogs and the Blue Pups in particular, have all promised to represent their districts. Period. Full Stop. And if they think their voters oppose health reform, they will continue their ideological opposition. But if not…what then? The negotiations are serious, fast, and furious. In fact, New York hospitals are breathing a bit easier this week after the Obama administration agreed to downsize its proposed hospital cuts by some $70 billion. The White House had called for slashing Medicaid and Medicare payments to hospitals by about $224 billion over 10 years to help pay for healthcare reform but agreed Wednesday to a more modest $155 billion target. Democrats are debating a new tax on families earning more than $250,000 a year, with the key item being the size of a surtax on high-earning families—not whether or not there will be one.

If you come from a Blue Dog state, contact your representatives. Let them know what you think. Let them know you are a nurse. Let them know that you care about this issue—and you vote!

If the Blue Dogs will compromise, and if Democratic leaders ultimately satisfy some of their concerns, the health bill will likely clear the House this week, marking a significant victory for President Obama. A version of the bill is still mired in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are engaged in tough negotiations to produce bipartisan legislation.

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