House’s Blue Dogs Teaching Old Democrats New Tricks : Congress: After November whipping, these 21 lawmakers have rebuilt clout in the budget talks. They’re being courted by White House and GOP.


As some of the most powerful figures in the White House and Congress gather almost daily to try to find common ground on a blueprint for balancing the federal budget, they leave room at the table for Rep. Charles W. Stenholm.

A tall, laconic cotton farmer little known outside his West Texas congressional district, Stenholm embodies the influence that an odd coalition of about 21 moderate and conservative Democrats could wield.

They call themselves Blue Dog Democrats--as distinct from the so-called Yellow Dog Democrats of the Old South who were so loyal to their party that they would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the ticket. And the Blue Dogs, more than any other faction in Congress, may determine whether this year’s titanic budget battle in Washington will end in a landmark plan to obliterate the federal deficit or a final breakdown that leaves Congress and the White House at war until Election Day.


This rump group runs the gamut from a Mormon Utah lawyer to a savvy veteran of the California Legislature. They have produced the only Democratic alternative spending plan that purports to meet the GOP goal of balancing the budget in seven years. And now they are being assiduously courted by both Republicans and the White House as the crucial voting bloc needed to tip the balance of power.

“You can’t be in a better position of potential influence than where we are today,” Stenholm said.

To be sure, the outcome of the budget battle may be shaped by forces beyond the control of any back-bench faction, such as presidential politics of 1996. But if President Clinton is going to strike a bipartisan budget compromise with the Republicans, he will have to sell it first to the moderate and conservative Democrats. And if the White House is going to hold out to protect Clinton’s priorities, including higher Medicare spending and more for education, it will need to keep the Blue Dogs in its corner.

They are, at the same time, a monument to the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over what should emerge from this clash of ideologies. Many Democrats are whispering that they would be better off with no budget deal because they see it as a way to underscore the contrast between the two parties.

The Blue Dogs beat a different drum. They have campaigned for years on budget-balancing promises. Most come from the South, where a conservative voting record is usually a prerequisite for political survival.

A few hail from some of the most Republican districts in the country. That’s why Republicans are hopeful that if budget talks with the White House break down, the Blue Dogs will howl and be willing to cut a deal with the GOP.

“Blue Dogs may be a little more discriminating [than Yellow Dogs],” said Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Ceres), a leader of the group, whose formal name is The Coalition. “They don’t vote for something just because it has a Democratic label.”

The Coalition was established early this year, after the Democrats’ devastating losses in the 1994 elections, which gave control of Congress to the GOP and brought the defeat of many moderate and conservative Democrats. The depleted ranks of conservative Democrats in the House banded together as The Coalition in an attempt to get maximum leverage.

At times, however, the group has seemed little more than a revolving door for disaffected Democrats. Four of the five House Democrats who switched to the GOP this year--W.J. “Billy” Tauzin of Louisiana, Mike Parker of Mississippi, Nathan Deal of Georgia and Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana--were Blue Dogs. Remaining members seem committed to sticking with the Democratic Party, but they cannot be counted on to stick to the party line.

Condit is a conservative Democrat with a history of defying the party leadership. As a member of the California Legislature before coming to Congress, he was one of a band of conservative Democrats who challenged Speaker Willie Brown in the late 1980s. Here in Washington, Condit has befriended Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), the House Budget Committee chairman. They have dined out, gone to rock concerts and joined forces on past budget causes.

Another Blue Dog budget leader is Rep. Bill Orton (D-Utah), a Mormon who in 1990 became the first Democrat to be elected from his East Utah district since it was drawn in 1982. Orton, the only Democrat in Utah’s congressional delegation, has survived in hostile political territory by portraying himself as a Democratic maverick.

As a Southerner, Stenholm is more typical of the group’s membership. He was so alienated from his party’s leadership in the mid-1980s that he once threatened to run for House speaker against Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). And back in 1981, he was a leader of the Boll Weevils--a faction of Southern Democrats who cast the crucial votes for President Ronald Reagan’s tax and budget cuts.

The Blue Dogs have a different strategy: Instead of casting their lot with Republicans, they came up with their own seven-year budget plan. But the Blue Dogs included none of the $245 billion in tax cuts that are in the GOP plan, and they called for less severe reductions in projected spending for social programs. When the Blue Dog budget came to a vote this fall, only 68 House Democrats voted for it. But now their budget is gaining attention as a possible blueprint for compromise.

The White House objects to the Blue Dogs’ budget on many points--such as its deeper cuts in domestic programs--but Clinton wants their votes for any deal that he might strike with the GOP. Clinton has said that he does not want to sign on to a budget deal unless it has the support of a substantial bloc of Democrats--as many as 100 of the House’s 197-member Democratic caucus.

“The administration can’t afford to make a deal that would have only 10 or 15 Democratic votes,” said an aide to the House Democratic leadership. “It would look like they sold out to Republicans.”

Top Clinton aides have been courting the Blue Dogs: saying kind things about their budget, asking their advice on negotiating with the GOP, pushing to get Stenholm a place on the budget negotiating team.

Republicans have begun their own courtship, saying that they are prepared to cut a deal with the Blue Dogs if negotiations with the White House break down.

If budget negotiations, which may resume today, show no signs of producing more than the partisan bickering that bogged down the first week of talks, the Blue Dogs may step up pressure on Clinton to get a deal.

Besides Stenholm, Orton and Condit, the Blue Dogs are: Scotty Baesler of Kentucky, Bill Brewster of Oklahoma, Glen Browder and Bud Cramer of Alabama, Pat Danner of Missouri, Pete Geren and Ralph M. Hall of Texas, Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, William O. Lipinski of Illinois, David Minge and Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, Charlie Rose of North Carolina, John Tanner of Tennessee, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, and Lewis F. Payne Jr., Norman Sisisky and Owen B. Pickett of Virginia.