Reservoir Dogs
On the tax deal, centrist Democrats take one last swipe at their party’s progressive wing.


Robert Costa

Blue Dog Democrats hobble toward the tax vote defanged. While they were once loyal guardians against liberal excess on Capitol Hill, their ranks will soon have been culled by the midterms — about half of them, 26 of 54, were defeated last month. But before many scamper off and those remaining fade into the background of a more left-wing Democratic conference, a final bark of defiance against the Pelosi regime is in order.

All around them, House liberals are throwing fits about the Obama-McConnell tax deal. These finger-wagging Democrats wail about the agreement’s estate-tax provision — which allows the tax to rise from zero to 35 percent with an exemption of $5 million, instead of to 55 percent with an exemption of $1 million as it is scheduled to do at the end of the year — and the scope of its tax-rate extensions. For Blue Dogs, the scene is a rerun. As the health-care and spending fights demonstrated, when the spotlight swerves onto the lower chamber, progressives hog it. And usually, they keep it — shaping the narrative on the floor and on the airwaves.

But at this late hour, most Blue Dogs are sick of the theatrics. With tax hikes looming, and unemployment pushing 10 percent, extending Bush-era tax rates is not only solid, middle-of-the-road politics, but necessary. In a letter sent to Pelosi earlier this week, 31 members of the caucus urged the speaker to “send the bill to the president’s desk,” as is, “without delay.” It is time, they wrote, to “put aside the partisan talking points and accomplish what the American people sent us here to do.”

The Blue Dogs’ pronouncement carries weight as the clock ticks. With conservative GOP congressmen such as Jason Chaffetz of Utah rallying against the compromise alongside the fight-on liberals, the president and deal-friendly Republicans need blocs of Democrats to achieve a majority vote. The addition of a pack of Blue Dogs to the cadre of centrist Democrats and old bulls in favor of the deal will make passage likely.

Along with the Senate, which passed the compromise Wednesday by an 81–19 vote, the Blue Dog position throws cold water on the idea that House progressives can successfully fiddle with, or trash, the agreement in today’s deliberations. As Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, a defeated Blue Dog from South Dakota, said in a statement this week, the time for “political games” is over.

“Blue Dogs realize that class warfare didn’t win; they want to get this behind them,” Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) observes. The fight over the deal on the left, he says, is seen by many of his moderate colleagues across the aisle as simply an “extension of the midterm campaign. Come January, the Democratic caucus, which lost because it was too liberal, will be more liberal than ever.” By backing the deal, they’re punching back.

Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democrat who eked out a narrow victory this fall, is not a Blue Dog, but points out that the Blue Dog position is gradually gaining favor. “I don’t think it commands a majority of the Democratic caucus,” he says. “But the package has picked up momentum in the last week. Especially with the overwhelming vote in the Senate, I expect it to pass the House. I’m sure that there are a lot of moderates and centrists like myself, and Blue Dogs, who will vote for it.”

Progressive leaders, of course, aren’t too pleased. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the co-chair of the progressive caucus, acknowledges that Blue Dogs “probably have sufficient numbers” to push the deal through. The Blue Dogs’ maneuver, he muses, “is their going-away gift for progressives.”

Grijalva and others are miffed that Blue Dogs, self-described fiscal hawks, are so willing to play ball on a bill that will, according to the Congressional Budget Office, add over $857 billion to the federal deficit over the next decade. “I would think that they would be very reluctant to add a trillion dollars to the deficit,” says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Ohio), a fellow progressive-caucus member. “These Blue Dogs have always been deficit hawks. They ought to be concerned.”

While fiscal conservatives of both parties have voiced displeasure with the deficit addition in the package, halting tax hikes and “ending uncertainty” is on most supporters’ lips as they explain their position. Besides, even if they make a ruckus about the debt, Blue Dogs appear to be resigned to the fact that progressives won’t support their preferred solution — pairing the extension of the tax cuts with spending cuts — so they might as well back the tax-rate extension, for better or worse, in the session’s waning days.