Reform Stance Puts Spotlight on Blue Dog Democrats

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009; 9:06 PM

Since Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) vowed last week to block health-care reform unless Democrats make major changes to the legislation, the lawmaker's phone lines have been flooded with calls from people on both sides of the issue, most of them from outside Arkansas.

Yet Ross exudes calmness and a confidence that his fellow Democrats will bow to his demands, which include adding provisions to reduce health-care costs and including a more limited version of the government-insurance option.

"No one wants to find themselves in this position," Ross said in an interview. "But there comes a time when you have to step up and say it's time to slow down and get it right."

The House Energy and Commerce Committee again Thursday postponed meeting publicly to discuss the health-care legislation, as the committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), continued negotiating privately with Ross and other members of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition, conservative Democrats who sit on the committee and could join Republicans and vote down a bill they don't like.

Ross, who heads the Blue Dogs' task force on health care, plays down the notion of tensions with House Democratic leaders or President Obama, who has declared health-care reform his biggest priority of the year. He notes that Obama shares the Blue Dogs' goal of reducing costs and that the president specifically praised the Blue Dogs in a interview Tuesday with CBS News.

"There is no rift between President Obama and the Blue Dogs," Ross said.

At the same time, the southern Arkansas lawmaker criticized unnamed "people who have set artificial deadlines" on health care and the "huge mistake" of putting climate change legislation on the House floor this summer before health care, which Ross says should have been the sole priority. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) strongly pushed a vote on climate change earlier this summer, and Obama had called for both houses of Congress to pass a health-care reform bill before they leave for their August recess, although he has now softened on that deadline.

Though opposition to the current House health-care legislation has brought Ross more attention than any other issue since he came to the House in 2001, it is not unusual for a member of the Blue Dogs to be in the center of an intraparty dispute.

The group, whose members hail mostly from small, often Republican-leaning districts in the Midwest and South, has become one of the most powerful forces in Washington, gaining influence after elections in 2006 and 2008. Many of them defeated GOP incumbents in tight races, helping Democrats win and then enlarge a majority in the House.

With 51 House members, the Blue Dogs effectively have a veto on legislation, as Democrats cannot pass bills the Blue Dogs vote against as a group. Many of the Blue Dogs, including Ross, have been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and won't back gun-control legislation that some more liberal Democrats want passed.

Party leaders have told the Blue Dogs and other Democrats that Obama's success is important to the party winning competitive House seats next year. But some Blue Dogs say that they are comfortable with separating from Obama on key issues.

"After the election, [Obama] was more popular, but people are coming home" to the Republicans, said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), a Blue Dog on the energy committee who is joining Ross's opposition. "On health care, there has been a perception things are too partisan and moving too fast. People in my district want me to be independent."

Like Gordon, Ross has managed to become very popular in a conservative-leaning state. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won in the presidential race with 59 percent of the vote, but Ross won 86 percent of the vote in a district with a mix of rural towns and small cities such as Hot Springs.

Ross says the Blue Dogs' occasional rebellions with party leaders are in part about "ensuring this Democratic majority still exists in future years."

"Some of the more liberal members of our party may not like the way we vote, but they need to realize we too are Democrats," Ross said. "And without us, they would be in the minority."

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