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Photo courtesy Office of Representative Heath Shuler

Blue Dog comeback?

Politics | More Democrats in the House means more conservative ones, too. They caved on spending bills last session but look poised to fight in 2009

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The towering former football player lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, hunts, goes to a Baptist church, is fiscally conservative, pro-life-and serves in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. Rep. Heath Shuler, 37, is entering his second term in Congress, representing a conservative district where he unseated a Republican who held the office for 16 years.

He is part of a faction of conservative Democrats in Congress who became thorns in the side of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the financial bailout votes. They drew the speaker's ire after the financial bailout initially failed in the House, and they have bucked the majority on some social issues. But they are not following the model of the powerful "Dixiecrats" of the 1950s and '60s, since on most spending bills they vote as liberally as the rest of the majority. And with lawmakers' constituents feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks, the speaker may woo some of these conservative Democrats into supporting the proposed $775 billion stimulus package.

When he is in Washington, Shuler lives with some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress-people like Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; and Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. Shuler isn't the only Democrat straddling ideologies. The growing House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition has about 50 members now-up by seven from the last election-and emphasizes fiscal responsibility and a strong military. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is a Blue Dog.

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So, why aren't Shuler and other Blue Dog lawmakers Republicans? Part of his reason is simple: He was born in a family of Democrats. But he also says what he sees as the Republican ideal of "every man for himself" goes against his values as a Christian.

"You look at the big picture of things, the Democratic Party helps those who cannot help themselves," he told me. "That's the Christian that I am." Shuler's Republican roommate and spiritual accountability partner Wamp told me Democrats like Shuler have to look past some major moral issues to be in the party, but he says Republicans have their own issues because they are stuck in an "elitist mindset."

Wamp himself grew up as a Democrat. "Neither party is the complete home for social conservative evangelicals," he said. The growing number of conservative Democrats, he said, should concern Republicans trying to win back conservative districts, but he said it remains to be seen as the new session of Congress gets underway whether these Democrats will really exercise significant power in the House.

Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, formerly served as the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ushering in a Democratic majority in the House in 2006. He pushed for conservatives to run as Democrats, including Shuler, "one of the shrewdest things [he] ever did," Wamp said. On the Senate side, Evan Bayh, D-Ind., is working to gather support for a caucus roughly modeled after the House caucus of Blue Dogs.

The nickname is a twist on the party loyalist, so loyal he'd vote for a yellow dog if it were running on a Democratic ticket. These Democrats say they are loyal, too, but their moderate-to-conservative views have been "choked blue" by their party. Some also say the term "Blue Dog" originated with the "Blue Dog" paintings of Cajun artist George Rodrigue, whose work hung on the office walls of Louisiana congressmen Billy Tauzin and Jimmy Hayes, both such conservative Democrats they eventually became Republicans.

The bloc of conservative Democratic votes will be important this session of Congress because the Republican minority has even less sway than in the last Congress-not only because of its diminished numbers but also because of a new set of rules Democrats instituted at the beginning of the session which limit the minority's power to halt legislation. Before, Republicans could send Democratic legislation back to committee for amendments, a maneuver that dragged down the passage of bills and halted legislation in the cases of a few appropriations bills. Also, the new rules remove the six-year term limits for committee chairpersons, another blow to the minority.

Shuler himself has a complex if not baffling voting record, showing his social conservatism and fiscal conservatism, but also his commitment to funding those he considers needy-he voted to deny federal family planning funds to Planned Parenthood in 2007, he voted no on the financial bailout, he voted yes on President Bush's AIDS program, and he also voted yes on the SCHIP bill, providing federal funds for children's health insurance. He also says he would vote, despite his fiscal conservatism, for federal spending on infrastructure in the midst of this recession.

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