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.
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.
Shuler sets himself apart from the majority in that he is one of about 16 Democrats in the House who have consistent voting records on issues most would consider pro-life. During the last session of Congress, in addition to his vote against Planned Parenthood funding, he voted to halt expanding research to more embryonic stem-cell lines. Shuler said Pelosi told him he was allowed to vote "with his heart," although it meant his vote was among those that put Democrats shy of veto-proof passage on several bills last session. Pelosi doesn't often let her caucus fall out of rank, but Shuler says she understands that the moderates also elected her to a leadership position, and that if she veers too far left she will lose that support.
This year, the House could face a vote on the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that would overturn restrictions on abortion nationwide. Each time the bill has surfaced for a vote, it has been buried again in committee, even in a Democratic Congress. But President-elect Obama said at one point last year that FOCA would be his first executive order, a way of bypassing votes in Congress. However, the tone Obama has struck during transition suggests he may not proceed with the controversial measure right away.
During the political hustle before the North Carolina primary in May 2008, Shuler recalled sitting at Biltmore Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., with former President Bill Clinton. Baptist Pastor Jim Henry spoke of a church program to help single moms. "There's your answer to abortion," Clinton said, according to Shuler.
"People are pro-choice because there's no other outlet," Shuler said, saying that women need more options as an alternative to abortion, like help with childcare and employment.
Shuler doesn't feel alienated from his party by his pro-life values. He believes that Democrats show more compassion for Americans throughout their lives, like in health care, if not before they are born. Republicans in Congress, he believes, use abortion as a political tool. "The Republicans had every opportunity to make the changes they wanted to on abortion," he said, referring to when the GOP held the majority. "They chose not to because it's the ace in the hole. That's not right." But he adds, "The Democrats, the same too, there's issues that they use."
Even while they enjoy a wider majority, the Democratic leadership's work this Congress will be corralling key votes in a fractious House, and Blue Dogs could be a powerful voting bloc. The House has 257 Democrats and 178 Republicans. While Pelosi won't worry about attaining a veto-proof majority with Obama in the White House, she may have difficulty passing certain bills if the Blue Dogs withdraw their support.
The key to advancing conservative values under a Democratic majority in the House is for Republicans to join forces with Blue Dog Democrats, forming their own conservative majority, Newt Gingrich wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2006. "We didn't see that last session," Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said before the new session began. "We'll see how it shakes out."
Blue Dogs in the last session voted with the Democratic majority on most spending bills, with the bailout votes as the exception. "I hope they will have more of a role," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who argues that Democrats in the last Congress let their "pay-as-you-go" plan to avoid deficit spending slip.
As factions form within the Democratic majority in both the House and the Senate, Democratic leadership is finding that it will be tricky to pass the $775 billion economic stimulus bill because of demands from all sides-with House Blue Dogs, for example, insisting on no pork barrel spending or pet projects, and Senate Democrats wanting to add their own pet projects and questioning the size of tax cuts to be offered. Shuler predicts that the push and pull will make this Congress a moderate one, though more spending is on the horizon. Moderation will depend on the actions of conservative Democrats like him.
HR 3043: An amendment to deny federalfunding to Planned Parenthood
Failed. Democrats voted nay; Blue Dogs: 21% yea, 75% nay, 4% didn't vote
HR 1424: Financial bailout
Passed. Democrats voted YEA; Blue Dogs: 64% yea ,36% nay
HR 3997: Original financial bailout
Failed. Democrats voted yea; Blue Dogs: 53% yea, 47% nay
HR 7321: Auto bailout
Passed. Democrats voted yea; Blue Dogs: 75% yea, 21% nay, 4% didn't vote
HR 976: SCHIP funding(children's health insurance)
Failed to acquire 2/3 vote to overcome Bush veto.
Democrats voted yea; Blue Dogs: 96% yea, 4% nay
To see if your representative is part of the Blue Dog Coalition, go to www.house.gov/ross/BlueDogs.