Looking Ahead, Obama Builds Ties With 'Blue Dogs'

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas is not likely to bring Barack Obama many votes on Nov. 4. Neither is Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee or Rep. Allen Boyd, a farmer from the Florida Panhandle.

But the three could play a big role in the success or failure of the next president, one reason Obama took a break from campaigning last week to call each of them, among the leaders of the "Blue Dog Coalition," a group of conservative-leaning Democrats who are committed to balancing the federal budget. The group's 49 members already wield significant power in the House, and their ranks are expected to expand in the next Congress.

"He said he planned to be the next president and he wanted to work with us," Ross said in recounting his conversation with Obama before the House approved a $700 billion economic rescue package. "He also recognized that we had the numbers to block or clear" legislation coming from the White House if he is elected.

Obama's outreach to the Democratic centrists is part of a broader effort by his campaign to prepare for a possible transition. A Washington-based team of government veterans, led by John Podesta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, now holds daily meetings and conference calls to outline what an Obama administration might look like. While Obama's primary focus remains beating Sen. John McCain, senior advisers said the worsening economic crisis has led the candidate to contemplate some of the most immediate challenges that await the next president, many involving Congress.

Upon taking office, the next president will confront a legislative body riven by partisanship, snubbed for years by the Bush administration and chronically undisciplined in handling taxpayer money. Although the Blue Dogs demanded austerity measures in the House when Democrats won control of the chamber in 2006, the Senate more or less ignored such "pay-as-you-go" restraints.

Jason Furman, Obama's economic policy adviser, has held his own extensive talks with Blue Dog Democrats and said Obama would seek to establish "a government unified around the concept of fiscal discipline and centered around the pay-go rule. Insisting on paying for things will lead to better economic policy."

While Democrats could well emerge next month with sizable majorities in the House and Senate, the party will remain divided between members who want to restore budget discipline, and more traditional Democrats who yearn for new spending in areas such as health care and education. Republicans are unlikely to help either side. The name "Blue Dogs" comes from a quip from one member that moderate Democrats, traditionally known as "Yellow Dogs," had been "choked blue" on spending by the demands of more liberal party members.

Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill see Obama's early relationship-building as evidence that he is determined to take office with a legislative plan in place.

For the Blue Dogs, a partnership with Obama provides a pathway out of an ideological cul-de-sac that the group backed into by insisting that the House adopt budget rules linking every spending increase or tax cut to a specific spending cut or new revenue source. Even many in the group concede that the standard was difficult to meet and caused friction among House Democrats, as well as open warfare with the Senate.

"They recognize that they've sort of committed themselves to a rather inflexible standard of fiscal discipline," said Scott Lilly, a longtime senior House aide and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Obama, he said, "is looking at the Blue Dogs and realizing their position is not in line with what he needs. It's a very good sign. He's counting votes already, and he's got a pretty good sense of where the issues are going to be."

Whatever the outcome next month, the worsening economic crisis will place tremendous pressure on Congress to help stimulate a recovery.

Earlier in the presidential campaign, Obama had been reluctant to commit to the substantial tax increases and spending cuts that would be required to make his proposals budget-neutral. But as the economic picture grows more bleak, he has increasingly acknowledged the need for trade-offs, and Furman said he would be committed to establishing an overall budget framework that makes room for new programs but also requires meaningful cuts, along with tax increases on the wealthy.

The Blue Dogs cheered when he made his firmest commitment yet on the Senate floor recently.

"Runaway spending and record deficits are not how families run their budgets, and it can't be how Washington handles people's tax dollars," Obama said in his Oct. 1 speech, delivered shortly before the Senate bailout vote. "It's time to return to the fiscal responsibility we had in the 1990s. We need to go through the budget, get rid of programs that don't work, and make the ones we do need work better and cost less. With less money flowing into the Treasury, some useful programs or policies might need to be delayed in the years ahead."

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), an ally of the Blue Dogs, is one of several Democratic leaders who urged Obama to forge a relationship with the 13-year-old group, which draws many of its members from south of the Mason-Dixon line. It picked up 11 new members in 2006, and has endorsed a dozen candidates this year.

Hoyer said of the language in Obama's Senate speech: "It was included very specifically to say to them, 'Look, I share your perspective.' . . . The Blue Dogs are a common-sense group of people. They are not handcuffed by some ideological commitment. What they don't want to see is indebtedness for indebtedness's sake."

Boyd, the group's chairman, said Obama acknowledged in a discussion that "he's got a very very difficult task ahead of him, in figuring out how to do all this. Issues like health care, education, we're going to have to figure out how to balance out that. What I think he understands is, you can't do any of that until you get your fiscal house in order. You get your budget back in balance. We're very pleased to hear him saying those things."

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a budget expert who endorsed Obama early in his campaign, had pressed the Democratic nominee to court his colleagues. Cooper said the result was likely to be real flexibility in setting a new budget course. "We're going to have an engaged President Obama, and I think we will have a good fiscal steward."

Tanner, a Blue Dog co-founder, said he and Obama commiserated about the "financial vulnerability of the country, and the fact that our dependence on foreign capital has created a vulnerability that has created a national security matter." But he said he is disappointed that Obama did not call for spending cuts and other disciplinary measures during his two debates with McCain.

"You can't dig out of this hole. Now it's a cavern," Tanner said of the country's fiscal state. "He's going to need the Blue Dogs to help with this because we're the guys at the gate going, 'Wait, wait.' "

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