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California Blue Dogs break with caucus over health care

If you’re following the national debate over revamping the nation’s health care system, it’s hard not to notice California representatives at every turn. Californians chair many of the key committees and subcommittees that HR 3200 needs to navigate.

Golden State legislators also are key players in the major group that has been standing in the way of President Barrack Obama’s health care plan, the group of 52 conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. California has seven Blue Dogs, the most of any state.

But when it came to the health care debate, five of the seven declined to sign on to a May letter from the Blue Dog Caucus to the Obama administration opposing key aspects of the health care plan. That same five did sign on to a pledge from the group Healthcare for America Now that states, “Our government’s responsibility is to guarantee quality affordable health care for everyone in America.” It also demands that a “public option” remain part of the plan, a goal that many blue dogs have opposed.

“In California, which has particularly urgent health care needs, most of our Blue Dogs saw the urgency of health reform,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a Sacramento-based organization that advocates for universal health care.

Another reason may be the demographics of the districts that California Blue Dogs represent. While many Blue Dogs are elected from moderate, or even Republican-leaning districts, California’s Blue Dogs represent seven of the eight most Democratic-leaning districts held by moderate caucus members nationwide. That means California Blue Dogs may be less moderate than some of their colleagues.

The five California Blue Dogs to split with their caucus were Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino, Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, Loretta Sanchez, D-Garden Grove, Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, and Mike Thompson, D-Napa. Harman also split with a block of seven other Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She has long been more liberal on healthcare than other issues, said Michael Lux, a principle at the consulting firm Progressive Strategies and a noted critic of Blue Dogs at the blog OpenLeft.org.  

Another possible reason for the Blue Dog defection over health care is that the fate of the bill could help determine the future of the Obama presidency, Lux said. “The Republicans are talking about how ‘If we beat Obama on health care, we break him.’ That may not be much of an exaggeration.”

Lux added that after Bill Clinton lost on health care, he abandoned liberals in the party and moved toward the political center. After Clinton’s health care efforts failed, he angered many progressives by agreeing to make massive changes to the nation’s welfare system. From a progressive standpoint, Lux said, after health care, Clinton “never again tried for any major reform.”

The term Blue Dog was coined in 1994 to describe moderate to conservative Democrats who didn’t fit with the liberal wing on the party. The caucus now contains 52 members, including many Southern and Western members from closely divided districts.

According to figures from the Cook Political Report, the second-most Democratic district among all Blue Dogs belongs to Schiff. Baca and Thompson are tied for third. They’re followed by Harman and Costa. Cardoza and Sanchez are tied for seventh. Obama won every one with at least 55 percent of the vote.

The House Energy & Commerce Committee became the site of the Blue Dogs’ showdown with Democratic leaders because of its block of seven members of that caucus. They ultimately won major concessions last Wednesday, lowering the cost of the 10 year, $1 trillion plan by $100 billion and exempting employers with payrolls below $500,000 from providing employee coverage. They also won the right for states to offer competing public plans.

Blue Dogs came under fire from many progressive critics after numerous reports of a jump in campaign cash coming from healthcare interests. According to a provocatively titled report called “Blue Dogs Fill Their Bowls with Cash,” by Josh Israel and Aaron Mehtaof the Center for Public Integrity, contributions from health care companies to the Blue Dog PAC jumped from $267,000 for the 2005-06 cycle to $508,800 in 2007-08. Receipts from the first half of 2009 alone hit $297,500.

Individual Blue Dogs have been cashing in as well. According to a report from the Public Campaign Action Fund, Blue Dogs on Energy and Commerce had taken more than $83,000 more than other Democrats on the Committee in lifetime donations from pharmaceutical, insurance and health sources. Overall, Blue Dogs in Congress took an average of 25 percent more than other Democrats.

But California Blue Dogs seem to be missing out on the party. Yet another analysis, this one from Consumer Watchdog, found that individual Blue Dogs took $1.7 million from health insurance and drug companies since 2005—about $34,000 apiece.

California Blue Dogs took only about half this amount, $18,464 on average. Cardoza and Costa, the two California Blue Dogs who have stuck with their caucus on healthcare, took a mere $9,000 between them. Only Thompson took a higher than average amount.

Mike Jensen, a spokesman for Cardoza, said they have been getting hundreds of calls from constituents about health care. The calls, he said, are about evenly divided between those who support the Democratic leadership’s position and those who want the kinds of limits Blue Dogs have been calling for. He also noted that Cardoza has never faced a serious primary challenge since 2002, when he won a primary against incumbent Gary Condit, himself a noted Blue Dog.

A spokesman for Costa, Bret Rumbeck, said that the congressman has been heavily involved in talks with other Blue Dogs about containing the cost of the bill. But he said Costa also has “other concerns,” such as improving access to specialists in rural areas.
Israel and Mehta say both the interest in and anger at Blue Dogs follows a long-established political pattern. When power changes hands in a two-party system, the moderates in the leading party become an important swing vote.

This is the reason behind the interest in Blue Dogs by a variety of business concerns, not just in health care. Overall contributions to the Blue Dog Caucus nearly doubled between 2005-6 and 2007-08, with the energy and financial services also drastically increasing their giving.

One thing is clear, said Wright of Health Access. As the bill continues its way through Congress, it will continue to be “a made in California product” because “we have so many freakin’ members,” he said.

These include Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, a leading liberal in Congress for over 30 years, who oversaw the recent showdown with the Blue Dogs as chair of the Energy & Commerce Committee. Earlier, the bill worked its way through Education and Labor, chaired by Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, and Health Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, under Ways & Means,

But the real action may come from other Democratic caucuses, led by still other Californians, where the Blue Dogs have made numerous enemies, Wright said.

“The other caucuses are pissed off now,” Wright said. “Who are the heads of those other caucuses? Lynn Woolsey [D-Marin], Progressive Caucus, Mike Honda [D-Campbell], Asian-American Caucus, Barbara Lee [D-Oakland], African-American Caucus.”


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