Blue Dog Democrats

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Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty

Representatives Jim Marshall, Mike Ross, Dennis Cardoza, Patrick J. Murphy, Jane Harman, David Scott and Allen Boyd during a Blue Dog Coalition news conference

Every political coalition needs a catchy name. The 1840s had the Know-Nothings, the 1980s had the Boll Weevils, and now there are the Blue Dogs, a group of 52 fiscally conservative Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives whose staunch resistance to the White House's health-care legislation efforts might delay a vote well past President Obama's August deadline.

When the Democrats lost Congress in 1994, some Representatives blamed the defeat on a party they felt had shifted too far to the left. These disgruntled Democrats decided to form a coalition to stand against their more liberal party members. They held meetings in the office of former Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin, who reportedly had one of Cajun artist George Rodrigue's famous Blue Dog paintings hanging on his wall. The Blue Dog Coalition's website also lists as an inspiration the 1928 term Yellow Dog, used to refer to a Southern Democrat who was more likely to vote for a dog than for a Republican. Instead of being blinded by party loyalty, this new group complained that it had been "choked blue" by its own party.

Originally comprising just 23 members, mostly from Southern states, the Blue Dogs supported the Republicans' Contract with America, complained that the Clinton White House was too liberal and called for a balanced federal budget. Shortly thereafter, the coalition's co-founders, Tauzin and Louisiana Representative Jimmy Hayes, switched to the Republican Party. Blue Dog numbers expand and contract with every election, and new members are adorably referred to as Blue Pups. Nineteen Blue Pups have won seats in the past two elections. Two were defeated and a handful more retired.

Blue Dogs tend to come from conservative areas of the country, where voters see them as a nonthreatening alternative to Republicans. They frequently provide the only bridge in an increasingly partisan political climate and are highly courted by other Democrats who need their votes to pass bills. Blue Dogs voted in favor of a number of Bush-era proposals, including the war in Iraq and warrantless wiretapping. They forced Obama to institute a pay-as-you-go budget plan for his $787 billion stimulus bill, recently delayed the Waxman-Markey climate-change energy bill and blocked legislation that would benefit unions. And now seven of the eight Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have threatened to vote down Obama's health-care legislation.

Nancy Pelosi played down the Blue Dogs' threat to the health-care bill, claiming that the $1 trillion overhaul could still be passed without them. But Democratic leaders aren't sure they have enough votes, and this past week has seen both Obama and Pelosi hold lengthy meetings with prominent Blue Dogs in hopes that they can be swayed. At issue are health-care costs (which Blue Dogs think are too high) and rural doctors' Medicare compensation (too low). The Blue Dogs will probably not cause the bill's defeat, but they may have enough leverage to force revisions by other Democrats anxious to get it passed.