Donnelly breaks with mainstream Dems (again)

(from the South Bend Tribune with bold type by DW)

Article published Jun 15, 2008
Hoosier Blue Dogs don’t heel on command

JACK COLWELL
Tribune Columnist

As the fate of a $3.1 trillion budget proposal was hanging in the balance, Congressman Joe Donnelly was hanging out in the House gallery.

But it wasn’t dereliction of duty. The Democrat from Granger, who represents Indiana’s 2nd District, already had voted “no,” doing his duty as he sees it to be a Blue Dog with a bite.

As House members continued voting on the floor below, the running tabulation showed that the budget measure backed by the Democratic leadership was in trouble. All Republicans were voting against it. And Donnelly wasn’t the only Democrat belonging to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition to vote “no.”

The two other freshman Democrats from Indiana elected in 2006, Reps. Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth, also Blue Dogs, also voted “no.”

Since Donnelly was next to me in the gallery, explaining some of the drama down on the floor, I asked an obvious question: “If Nancy Pelosi needs one more vote, would you switch?””No,” Donnelly said. “That’s why I’m up here,” he added, laughing.

Not really. There are other “safe” places. But the floor, as the final tally approaches in a close and crucial vote, is not one of them for any member viewed as possibly susceptible to arm-twisting or offers from either side.

Actually, Donnelly said, the leadership knew he was voting “no” and wouldn’t switch.

Final tally: 214-210 for passage.

House Speaker Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership did gain support of a majority of the Blue Dogs, a necessity to avoid defeat of the budget plan, a plan that already had survived a close Senate vote. An analysis by the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call found that of the 47 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, only nine voted against the budget — only the three Indiana members and six others. In all, 14 Democratic House members voted in opposition.

Roll Call also pointed out that all three of the Democrats elected in recent special elections in what had been regarded as “safe” Republican districts voted “no.”

This brings up a trend that could have profound effect on what Congress could or would pass after the election this fall, no matter whether there is a President Obama or a President McCain.

Increasing Democratic membership in the House — with projections for more increases this fall — is coming through election of moderate Democrats with fiscally conservative views in districts where Republican incumbents have lost favor.

Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who masterminded the successful ’06 effort to gain a House majority, knew that targeted GOP incumbents in districts with basically moderate voter makeup, though vulnerable, still would likely beat a liberal challenger.Thus there came the successful challenges by Donnelly, Hill and Ellsworth, moderates who defeated Republican incumbents in Indiana, and similar results elsewhere.

The three Hoosiers and other freshmen Democrats joined and strengthened the Blue Dogs. They often bark loudly, sometimes forcing a change in course by Pelosi and the rest of a leadership that would prefer to lead in a more liberal direction.

Some of the Blue Dogs who voted for the budget plan, which also maps spending priorities for the next five years, thought their barking had forced improvements. More pay-as-you-go provisions. More emphasis on an eventual balanced budget. And the promise of hearings on the looming problems of Social Security and Medicare.

Others still thought it was necessary to bite, to vote “no” because of the spending and deficit levels, and the avoidance of decisions on changes in taxation, Medicare and Social Security.

All Republicans voted “no,” reflecting their position in the minority, even though most had voted “yes” for huge deficits accumulated by the Bush administration while they controlled Congress. The president had proposed a $3.1 trillion budget, but with some different priorities.The Blue Dogs are in the tradition of congressional coalitions with colorful monikers. Their coalition was formed after Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 elections.

According to the group’s Web site, founders were mostly from the South and picked the name with sarcastic reference to “the South’s longtime description of a party loyalist as one who would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ballot as a Democrat.” But the color blue was chosen because they felt that moderate-to-conservative views had been “choked blue” by their party leading up to the 1994 defeats.

Pelosi sent no party whip to the gallery to have Donnelly “choked blue.” Even with his “no” vote, he is a valued member of the majority. After all, there wouldn’t be a Democratic majority without the Blue Dogs and other Democrats who are moderate due to personal inclinations or political considerations or both.

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