WASHINGTON — The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative House Democrats who largely hail from Southern and Midwestern states, could prove critical in passage of the Obama administration's health care policies.
However, the group, which includes Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles, complains that liberal committee chairmen are shutting them out of the legislation-crafting process.
Last month, 45 Blue Dogs, including Chandler, sent a terse letter to the Democratic chairmen of the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means committees stating that the group felt minimized in the process, which is "especially concerning in light of the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues."
The coalition cited the Senate's meetings with committee members and stakeholders to glean input and discuss options.
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"We are becoming increasingly troubled that this process has yet to be structured in a way that includes the contributions of the majority of our caucus," the coalition members wrote. "A number of our members sit on your committees, and we stand ready to work with you on possible options for reform."
Chandler did not respond to calls for comment.
Earlier this month, when congressional leaders unveiled a draft bill, the proposal centered heavily on a public, or government-run, health care option—much to the Blue Dogs' chagrin. There also was no mention of the public option being used only as a fallback that could be triggered years from now, a sticking point for many Blue Dogs.
"The Blue Dogs want to see health care reform happen, and we're looking to be productive partners in the debate," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who heads the coalition's task force on health care. "We have had a number of meetings with the committee chairmen and other members of leadership, and we will continue to offer our input as legislation makes its way through the House."
Though White House officials also met with Blue Dogs this month to discuss their concerns over health care reform, the Obama administration has made it clear that a public option will form the cornerstone of reform efforts.
Moderate Democrats worry about funding the costs of such efforts, more than $1 trillion during the next decade by most estimates, and want a clear sense of how government-sponsored insurance would function.
"From this point forward, (President Barack) Obama would do well to calm the fears of some who believe that more deficit spending is on the way," said David Wasserman, House editor of the Cook Political Report.
While influential committee chairmanships in the House are held by more liberal members, moderate Democrats hold considerable sway. Chandler sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
The Blue Dog coalition and the similarly centrist New Democrats Coalition claim a little more than 100 of the House's 435 members.
Obama's support of statutory pay-as-you-go — or PAYGO — rules to match new government spending with budget savings elsewhere is seen as a move that will help pacify the party's more conservative wing.
"It was done partly for the Blue Dogs because they tend to be fiscal conservatives," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "They put an emphasis on spending and they are naturally concerned about what this health care plan is going to cost and the impact on the massive debt we're carrying."
Many of the Blue Dogs hail from districts that are conservative-leaning and have sizable numbers of Republican voters. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan think tank that focuses on government transparency, Blue Dogs often take positions that are favorable to the health care industry.
During the 2008 cycle, individual members of the Blue Dog Coalition raised a combined $6.24 million from the health sector. The average contribution to a Blue Dog Democrat in the 2008 election cycle was slightly higher — $122,370 — than the average contribution to a Democratic lawmaker — $116,748, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
"Blue Dogs will have great sway in the House on how this legislation is ultimately written," Wasserman said. "Especially since this is Congress' bill to write."