Fifteen years after pawing their way into existence amid the 1994 Republican Revolution, members of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats — including four of Georgia’s six Democrats in the House — are suddenly the big dogs on Washington’s political porch.
“They’ve really become the swing vote in Congress,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. “That’s giving them a great deal of influence. ... They have a real opportunity to shape legislation now.”
The Blue Dogs’ quick rise to power has surprised even some of the most seasoned political strategists — including the architect of the Republican Revolution himself, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Officially, the Blue Dog Coalition includes 52 Democrats from nearly every part of the country who are generally considered moderate or conservative.
The name is derived from the Southern political expression “Yellow Dog Democrats” — party loyalists so devoted that they would vote for a yellow dog before voting for a Republican. The Blue Dogs say they get their color because their middle-of-the-road stance leaves them choked blue by liberals on one side and conservatives on the other.
Georgia members are Reps. David Scott of Atlanta, Jim Marshall of Macon, Sanford Bishop of Albany and John Barrow of Savannah.
“The basic drift of the American people is to the center ... and we reflect that,” Scott said. “And he who controls the center controls the political debate. That’s what we’ve proven.”
“We had the voice ... but we didn’t have the votes,” Barrow said. “Now that the Democrats are in the majority, we ... are the majority makers.”
Doug Moore, chief of staff for Marshall, characterized the coalition as something of a support group for Democrats who don’t automatically agree with the party’s leaders.
“Frankly, when you’re out there and you don’t support the leadership, it’s kind of lonely,” Moore said. “These are guys who understand your position, value it and will help protect you when you need it.”
Blue Dogs also know they’ll face political pain if they buck the Democratic leadership too much, however. In addition to risking the loss of re-election support from party leaders, they also face losing key committee seats and assignments if they stray too far.
Among Georgia’s Blue Dogs, Barrow is getting the most heat from his party’s supporters these days. That’s because he’s the only Georgia Blue Dog on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he and a handful of other coalition members broke with other Democrats who approved the health care reform bill in an Aug. 1 committee vote.
While Barrow said he supports the idea of reform, he doesn’t support some of the proposed taxes on small businesses to help pay for it.
Like other Blue Dogs, Barrow wants to exempt small businesses that make less than $500,000 in annual revenues from a requirement to provide health care for employees or pay additional taxes. He said he also wants to ensure that a public health care option Obama wants remains only an option, not a requirement.
The liberal activist group Moveon.org, meanwhile, began running ads last week in Barrow’s district, which spans from Savannah to Augusta and westward. The Moveon.org ads accuse Barrow of siding with special interests instead of Georgia families in voting against the Democratic leadership’s health care proposal.