The Blues Amidst Hope

President Obama’s signing of his “stimulus” bill marks a beginning, not an end.  The bill gives both the American Left and the Right cause for celebration and hope, at least for now.

But those who try to find a middle ground are in a pickle.

The stimulus was the Left’s biggest salvo fired in their first month in full control of the White House as well as Congress.  To them, the gargantuan bill is still only a first step in reshaping the country.  

Conservatives celebrated because the bill’s gargantuan price tag shocked the opposition party into rediscovering — and rallying ‘round — its limited government roots.  In the end, only three Republican senators joined Democrats to pass the package.  Seven Democratic House members bucked their liberal leadership to oppose the bill.

Conservatives had hoped for even more help from the “Blue Dogs,” House Democrats who preach fiscal prudence.  They barked at the $787 billion stimulus package, but in the end only six of the 51Blue Dogs voted against the final bill. (Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR), who wanted more spending and less tax cuts, was the seventh Democrat no.)   Most of the Blue Dogs settled for a letter to Speaker Pelosi that criticized some of the spending (unspecified) which, they wrote, should be addressed in the “normal appropriations process” rather than as an emergency.

One Blue Dog who stuck by his standards was Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho).  He decried what he called "the largest spending bill in U.S. history,” noting that, "The measure began with a tight focus on job creation and infrastructure improvements, but ballooned into a ‘something for everything’ spending proposal."

His Blue Dog colleague, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), stated, "In the end, this bill simply contained entirely too much spending in areas that will not provide an immediate stimulative effect to our nation’s economy. With our national debt approaching $11 trillion we should not be borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars without careful and deliberate consideration."

Another Blue Dog, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn), gained national attention when he first voted no on initial passage.   The follow-up issue of The Nation branded Cooper as “dissident-in-chief among House Democrats.”  But his initial vote and his unflattering comments about the bill’s mishandling brought Cooper a lot of heat from Democratic House leaders.  He subsequently reversed course and voted for the final package.

That about-face, along with the “yeas” cast by 44 other Blue Dogs for the $787 billion spendathon, tarnished their brand for fiscal responsibility.  After basking for years in conservative praise, the Blue Dogs may find their reputation in need of a veterinarian.

The Blue Dogs’ commitment to spending discipline will be tested again quite soon.  President Obama releases his budget proposal next week.  Then the House and Senate will work up their budget, which could include tax hikes as well as record spending.

Having given their party a big win on the stimulus, if they now decide to return to their roots — as House Republicans did on the stimulus — the Blue Dogs would be an important voice for fiscal discipline.

They will have plenty of challenges, and they will be courted heavily because they represent 51 of the 255 House Democrats.  If and when Republicans remain united and could attract a super-majority of Blue Dogs, they could win House votes.  That hasn’t happened this year and may not ever happen.  But this is one reason why President Obama hosted the Blue Dogs at the White House on February 10th, seeking their future support.

The tests will be unrelenting:  A new appropriation bill for about $500 billion will be unveiled next week; perhaps $2 trillion more in federal bailouts are being proposed, which some in Congress will try to block;  nationalized health care is on the agenda; a back-door energy tax called “cap-and-trade” is to be considered (including vast new environmental regulations).

When they held the majority, Republicans in Congress were often torn between holding true to their beliefs or supporting their party’s President and majority in Congress.  Now the Blue Dogs face that same dilemma.

The other congressional Democrats have shown their free-spending colors.  Will the Blue Dogs cling to their traditional color, or be dyed by red ink?