First, considering their sudden relevance, who and what are Blue Dog Democrats?
They're self-named centrist and fiscally conservative Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, primarily rural and mostly from the South and the Midwest. For several years they have been organized to advance deficit-conscious and self-protective positions that distinguish them from the traditionally liberal strain that dominates most of the House Democrats and the leadership.
Currently there are 52 of them among the 257 House Democrats in the full membership of 435.
Arkansas, being rural and conservative while nominally Democratic, has two Blue Dogs, Mike Ross from the 4th District of southern Arkansas and Marion Berry from the 1st District of eastern Arkansas. Ross is chairman of the Blue Dogs' long-standing health care task force.
Here's what happened late last week: Everyone was assuming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could get passed whatever health care reform bill she desired, owing to her discipline and her wide Democratic majority, thus sending momentum to the real battleground in the Senate.
Pelosi was getting ready Thursday to unveil on Friday a health care bill worked up by three House committees — Ways and Means, Education and Labor and Energy and Commerce. But the Blue Dogs sent her a letter, signed by 40 of the 52 of them, including Ross and Berry.
The letter made five policy points, but I'm going to cut through all that to give you the political essence.
The Blue Dogs actually said this, by my paraphrase: “We've been trying to tell y'all that we have policy and political concerns about creating a public health insurance option and about how we need to find ways to cut costs in our health care system to avoid more rampant deficit spending. But y'all haven't been listening. You're planning to go ahead anyway with a bill that pays no heed to us, even while the Senate is working on something entirely different and presumably more conservative and palatable to us.
“This has happened us to us before. We get strung out by our leadership and then the Senate makes moderating changes in what we're strung out on. Cap-and-trade, for example. Twenty-three of us Blue Dogs got leaned on to vote for that, and we're getting beaten up at home. Now the Senate is just going to sit on it. We're not going to walk that plank again. Quit taking us for granted or we'll derail health care reform altogether, at least on this short-term timetable you and the president seem intent on.”
Pelosi had to cancel her big plans for Friday. So now, with the president still wanting House action by the Aug. 8 recess, those three House committees intend to put a bill out this week. Then they intend to try to fashion some kind of compromise by week's end that would bring a sufficient contingent of Blue Dogs aboard.
The Blue Dogs have been careful not to oppose a public insurer, per se. They say they'll oppose it if it reimburses like Medicare, which has higher rates for urban areas than rural ones. And they prefer it as a trigger, meaning something to be created later only if private insurer reforms don't meet cost-reduction targets.
It will come down to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has eight Blue Dog members. One of them must be brought around or health care reform will be stymied. Ross, who sits on the committee, is the likeliest prospect, because he's from a seemingly safe district and he didn't get on the wrong political side of cap-and-trade.
But Ross is nothing if not savvy to his constituents' conservatism. Across southern Arkansas he is hearing uncommon anger about deficits, bailouts and this “socialism” nonsense getting fomented by the right wing.
I could sense his fatigue when he returned my call from the Cincinnati airport Monday morning on his way back to the wars in Washington.
He knows we can't long go on with the health insurance status quo. It'll bankrupt us all. But he also knows the political waters are stormy.