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Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. (AP/Photo by Ron Edmonds)

Bayh's Blue Dogs

Politics | If its bite is as strong as its bark, a new group of conservative Democrats led by Evan Bayh could significantly influence a tightly divided Senate

WASHINGTON-A coalition of moderate Senate Democrats has a message this week for their centrist House "Blue Dog" Democratic colleagues: Move over.

Saying there is room in the Senate for a formal faction of conservative Democrats, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., announced this week that 15 Senate Democrats have formed a moderate group to ensure the more liberal wing of the party does not ignore their voices.

Using the moniker "The Moderate Dems Working Group"-admittedly not as catchy as the House's equivalent "Blue Dogs" faction of about 50 conservatives Democrats-the Senate group will meet twice a month. Goal one: to pass a fiscally responsible budget.

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If this group's bite turns out to be as strong as its bark during the Senate's next big spending showdown, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and President Obama may face some internal roadblocks.

In fact, this band of Democrats may end up wielding greater influence then the House version, given the tightly divided Senate where it takes 60 votes to get most things done. The large Democratic majority in the House allows Democratic leaders there to often marginalize the Blue Dogs. But this Senate group, while just a pup, could block Obama's agenda in the Senate if they decide to go against party talking points. Currently there are 56 Democratic senators and two independents who align themselves with the party, giving Democrats a 58 to 41 advantage, with the Minnesota Senate race still undecided.

As such, the liberal wing of the party will have to pay attention, says Elizabeth Bennion, a political scientist with Indiana University South Bend.

She points out that the group, if bold enough to side with Republicans when it comes to spending measures, could force Obama to follow though with his campaign promise to be bipartisan. So far, bipartisanship has been pushed aside during the early stages of the 111th Congress in the face of controversial legislation like the $787 billion stimulus package passed last month.

"In crafting legislation, Obama's plans might not be as grand as he had hoped," says Bennion.

Joining Bayh as co-leaders are Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who caucuses with the Democrats, also joined the group. The other Senate Democrats signing on were Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Mark Warner of Virginia.

Using adjectives like "centrist," "pragmatic," "practical," "constructive," and "fiscally responsible," the new group this week proclaimed they just want to help Congress get things done without losing control of the government's purse strings.

"We have a wonderful opportunity to break gridlock in Washington and accomplish big things for the American people, but we also have a responsibility to pursue sensible solutions that will work," says Bayh.

With Democrats this year unveiling expensive new plans to increase the federal government's role in health care, the economy, education, and energy policy, this new coalition may find itself tested sooner rather than later.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a welcome message for a group that may give him future headaches as the party's Senate floor quarterback: "New ventures like this group offer us a new opportunity to get things done, and I support every effort that puts real solutions above political posturing."

Bayh already has shown a willingness to critique his own party leadership-despite being a finalist for the vice presidency last fall. He was just one of three Senate Democrats to vote against the recent $410 billion omnibus spending bill, and he also questioned the cost of proposed health care reform in President Obama's first budget outline.

Bayh's brand of Democrat-much like his home Hoosier state-is not your Massachusetts' version of the party, says Indiana University South Bend's Bennion. The state went Democrat in a presidential election for the first time since 1968 last November when Obama won the state by less than a percentage point.

Bayh, up for reelection next year but not expected to face a serious challenger, may also be using the group to amp up his national visibility. Maybe in time for 2016-the next time the Democratic presidential nomination is expected to be up for grabs.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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