Once dubbed ‘whipped pups,’ Blue Dog Democrats like Ben McAdams are a force in this Congress

Washington • Years ago, newspapers were essentially writing obituaries about the Blue Dog Coalition, a once formidable voting bloc of centrist Democrats that had been reduced, as one headline put it, to “whipped pups.”

The 2010 election trimmed the coalition from 54 seats to 25. Two years later, 14 were left in the House.

Now, they’re back.

With 27 members, the group remains a shadow of its former self, but since Democrats have a slim 18-seat majority margin, it matters.

So far, the Blue Dogs, including Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah, have been able to halt an effort to raise the pay for members of Congress and persuaded House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to pass a Senate bill to fund aid for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. They’ve also been able to give Pelosi cover from more liberal members calling for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

“Whether it’s on raising congressional pay or numerous other issues, we try to steer a course that I think is in line with where the American people are that’s more down the center,” said McAdams, who beat then-Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, by the closest margin in any House race. “And I think we’ve done so successfully.”

While some Democrats in Congress and presidential candidates are trying to tug the party to the left, the reality is that the Blue Dogs are showing some bite in what legislation gets passed in a divided Congress with Republican Trump in the White House.

“They are the fulcrum of the House because they are the difference between the majority and the minority for Democrats,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Report, a political handicapper in Washington. “So that gives them quite a bit of sway.”

It’s been a while since that’s been the case.

Blue pups

The Blue Dog Coalition, so named by moderate Democrats who felt more liberal members were choking them blue, commanded 54 seats in 2010, giving them some leverage in then-President Barack Obama’s efforts to pass the Affordable Care Act. The group was able to fend off some more liberal-leaning plans, and the president courted their votes.

But the election of 2010 pretty much smashed any sway that it had.

The coalition went from 54 seats to 25, and Republicans took over the House. Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat and Blue Dog member, survived that election wipeout but later decided not to seek reelection, joining several others facing tough campaigns.

Now, with Democrats in charge of the House and the Senate in Republican hands, the more moderate members of the Democratic Party are able to swing their votes to force the agenda.

“It’s important for Democrats who are advocating impeachment or reparations or single-payer [health care] to realize that,” Wasserman said. “Those proposals would be dead on arrival in this Democratic House because of the Blue Dog Coalition.”

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff ignited controversy when he castigated the Blue Dogs and compared them to Southern Democrats of old, when the party supported segregation and opposed civil rights.

“Instead of ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal,’ let’s call the New Democrats and Blue Dog Caucus the ‘New Southern Democrats,’” her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, said on Twitter. “They certainly seem hellbent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the ’40s.”

“Didn’t realize this needed to be said, but: you can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system,” he added in another tweet. “And a lot of New Democrats and Blue Dogs did that today.”

Chakrabarti was incensed that the Blue Dogs had revolted against Pelosi over her plan to take up a Democratic bill that would have funded more aid for the southern border but put restrictions and checks and balances on how detained migrants are treated.

Under pressure from moderate Democrats, Pelosi caved and passed the GOP-led Senate’s bill that had less restrictions but could — and did — pass easily.

Going forward, Congress-watcher Wasserman sees the Blue Dogs again as a force that can impact legislation.

“The distance between these Democrats and Senate Republicans is still substantial,” he said. “But they are a moderating influence on House Democrats. For example, they are much more likely than those on the far left of the party to agree to additional funding for the humanitarian crisis on the border.”

McAdams, who represents a district with more Republicans than Democrats, hopes the House can hold its center.

“You’ve seen a lot of progressive ideas floated,” he said, “but if you judge Congress by what’s actually come to the floor, it’s much more centrist.”