Tuesday, March 27, 2001

'Blue Dog' Lucas won't roll over

Kentuckian is happy as a Democrat

By Nancy Zuckerbrod
The Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas votes with Republicans about 50 percent of the time, yet the Kentuckian is a Democrat. So why doesn't he just join the GOP and enjoy the spoils as a member of the majority party?

        “I'm happy being a conservative Blue Dog Democrat,” Mr. Lucas says.

        That's not a derogative term. It's a congressional caucus of 33 generally moderate to conservative House Democrats who focus on fiscal issues such as paying down the debt.

        There are nearly 200 caucuses that members of Congress can join, but the Blue Dog Coalition is getting the most attention.

        Republicans hold a 220-211 majority in the House with two independents and two vacancies. GOP leaders and President Bush will likely need Blue Dog support to pass legislation.

        Similarly, Democrats are working to keep Blue Dogs on their team.

        Florida Rep. Allen Boyd, a Blue Dog co-chairman, says the group is influential because the parties are less polarized.

        “It appears the parties are coming more to the middle, where we think we are,” Mr. Boyd said.

        It wasn't always this way.

        The Blue Dog Coalition was formed in 1995, after Democrats took a beating at the polls in 1994 and Republicans took over Congress.

        Nearly 75 percent of original members were Southern, compared with about half now.

        The name plays on the phrase “Yellow-Dog Democrat,” which describes loyalists who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ticket. Some Blue Dogs say they were choked blue by their party.

        The 23 founders thought that by voting as a bloc, with two-thirds of the group agreeing on an issue, they could gain influence. Earlier conservative Democratic coalitions did not vote as a bloc.

        But the Blue Dogs were slow to gain respect.

        Former Democratic Rep. Scotty Baesler of Kentucky said Blue Dogs were originally outcasts. Shortly after the group formed, five members became Republi cans, making “everybody a little more suspicious,” Mr. Baesler said.

        The first to switch was Rep. Nathan Deal of Georgia. Democrats “had drifted so far to the left that they really did not feel like they had any need for people like Blue Dogs,” Mr. Deal said.

        The last Blue Dog to leave the party was Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who became an indepen dent last year.

        It's unlikely any remaining Blue Dogs will switch parties, given the group's increased power, said Marshall Wittmann, who focuses on politics at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank.

        Mr. Wittmann used Mr. Lucas as an example. “If a Blue Dog such as him became a Republican, he would just be another conventional Republican,” Mr. Wittmann said. “By remaining a Democrat, he gets to be courted by Republicans.”

        Blue Dogs have met with Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney several times, but despite the wooing the coalition did not support Mr. Bush's income tax cut when it was voted on in the House. The group argues a budget should be completed before a major tax cut is considered.

        Democrats also did some courting, allowing the Blue Dogs to lead their debate on the tax proposal.

        When Blue Dogs vote on legislation, they typically vote with the Democratic Party — 69 percent of the time last year, according to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly magazine.

        Some members, however, are more closely aligned with Democratic leadership. California Rep. Loretta Sanchez voted with the party 94 percent of the time, and Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. voted with Democrats 89 percent of the time.

        On fiscal issues, Mr. Ford and Ms. Sanchez have more conservative records than other Blue Dogs, according to the Concord Coalition, a research group that focuses on economic policy.

        Mr. Deal says Blue Dogs won't be cohesive if they remain so politically diverse, but California Rep. Ellen Tauscher says diversity has made the coalition more influential within the Democratic Party.

        Ms. Tauscher says her decision to join the group in 1997 raised eyebrows among Democratic constituents.

        “Some of my friends in the labor movement had their knickers in a twist about it,” she said. But “the idea that it was just a bunch of Southern white guys has changed over time.”


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