COLUMN: Conservative Democrats hold growing influence as power balancers

During the House battle over cap and trade legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to settle for a narrow 219 to 212 vote margin to get that controversial legislation adopted in spite of a 256 – 178 Democratic House majority.
Why? The so-called “Blue Dog” Democrats – the political descendants of the “Boll Weevil” Democrats most recently of the Ronald Reagan era – now have the political math in their favor and have quickly become a force to be reckoned with if they actually stick to their stated principles.

Boll weevils?
The “Boll Weevils” – primarily conservative Southern Democrats – were Reagan’s allies in voting for tax cuts while at the same time backing increased military spending and deregulation. Historically, “Boll Weevil” Democrats backed the big-government Democratic Party “New Deal” while breaking with the party over civil rights and school desegregation.
In the Reagan era, the late U.S. Rep. Sonny Montgomery, D-Meridian, was the state’s most recognizable “Boll Weevil” Democrat.
But in the waning term of Montgomery’s distinguished career, the “Boll Weevils” gave way to a new group of “Blue Dog” Democrats when Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections.
This broader, less-Southern group took its name from an old saying: Southerners would vote for a yellow dog if it were on the Democratic ballot. They claim the blue dog represented moderate or conservative Democrats “choked blue” by the dominant policies of the more liberal wing of the party.

Childers, Taylor
Today, 4th District U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Bay St. Louis, and 1st District Rep. Travis Childers, D-Booneville, are Mississippi’s Blue Dog Democrats.
With 52 House members including Taylor and Childers, the Blue Dogs have gained power as the country debates future energy and health care policies by virtue of the fact that if they stick together and vote as a bloc against bills Republicans oppose, Democratic President Barack Obama’s party can’t claim a House majority.
That sobering political math hasn’t missed the minds and wallets of the lobbyists and special interest groups, either. The nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity reported this week that the Blue Dogs’ political-action committee raised $1.1 million in the first six months of this year, more than it raised for the entire 2003-04 fundraising cycle.
Blue Dog Democrats claim to support fiscal responsibility. If Taylor and Childers actually vote for fiscal responsibility – something that Republicans forgot about over the last eight years on Capitol Hill – then they are in a position to have a powerful impact on health care reform and cap and trade legislation.
But talk, as they say, is cheap. While Taylor has a consistent record of bucking his own party, Childers’ Blue Dog loyalties are still being tested and scrutinized.

Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

Sid Salter