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Blue Dogs Democrats Have a Centrist Agenda
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Blue Dogs Democrats Have a Centrist Agenda

Blue Dogs Democrats Have a Centrist Agenda

Blue Dogs Democrats Have a Centrist Agenda
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Jim Matheson (D-UT) is co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats. The centrists helped bring the Democrats to power in last week's elections, and they'll influence the agenda as the new Congress takes the reins.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Now that the balance of power has shifted in Congress, politicians from both parties are vowing to work together to get things done, and with moderate to conservative Democrats picking up a number of seats in the House and many Republicans fed up with the direction of their party, there is at least a chance of bipartisan cooperation.

With that in mind, I spoke with two prominent congressmen, one from each party. First I met Democrat Jim Matheson of Utah in the U.S. Capitol Building. Matheson is a leader of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition.

Representative JIM MATHESON (Democrat, Utah): The Blue Dogs are a group of conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives. They formed after the 1994 election when the party had significant losses, and primarily these are folks who came from districts that traditionally probably vote more Republican than Democratic, but these were Democrats who got elected in those precincts. And I think Blue Dogs can be characterized around three main issue areas.

One is Blue Dogs believe in government accountability. That means you balance the budget, that means federal agencies got to know where they spend their money, and they've got to give you a clean audit of their books. It's about making the trains run on time. That's one issue area.

Second is Blue Dogs have always been an advocate for strong national defense. And the third area is that Blue Dogs believe in strong pro-economic growth policies, because we believe a growing economy really benefits everyone in this country.

SEABROOK: As I look around this room we're sitting in, this is the room - the Rayburn Room is where Nancy Pelosi gave her celebratory press conference on Wednesday after the election, very ornate and beautiful.

I'm reminded of the fact that Nancy Pelosi's majority is, in fact, going to be a majority in part because of so many new Blue Dog Democrats. How do you see yourselves fitting into a Democratic majority?

Rep. MATHESON: Well, I think we fit in quite well because - not just in this election we just had, but if you go back over the past three or four elections, the vast majority of seats that Democrats have picked up that have now ultimately given the Democratic Party the majority have been Blue Dogs.

In my class, in 2000, for example, six of us took seats held by Republicans.

SEABROOK: At the same time, in the Republican conference in recent years, there's been a caucus known at the Main Street Coalition. You might call them liberal Republicans. A lot of these seats that these conservative Democrats picked up were formerly moderate Republicans. Will there be people in the Republican Party you all can form coalitions with to pass legislation to your liking, or are you sticking with the Democratic Party?

Rep. MATHESON: Oh, I think there's no question that Blue Dogs will reach out across the aisle. Blue Dogs have always acted in a bipartisan way. The Blue Dogs were the group in the Democratic side of the aisle that really pushed for the welfare-reform package that ultimately was signed into law in 1996. They worked with Republicans to do that. So I think there's a lot of common ground.

SEABROOK: One of the criticisms that moderates of both parties have had in recent years of the Congress is that the leaders of both sides - Nancy Pelosi, Tom Delay - are to the far extremes of their party. How do you see Blue Dogs, moderate to conservative, pro-defense, pro-fiscal conservatism, these Democrats - how do you see yourselves being led by a Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco? Many say she's the most liberal member of Congress leading the Democrats.

Rep. MATHESON: Look, I think she's been very clear in saying that the Democrats are going to lead from the center, and I think if you really look at the results of this past election, I think that it was a rejection of the polarized politics we're had in Washington. I don't think this was a resounding embrace of the Democrats, per se, as much as my colleagues would all like to feel that way. I think it was a rejection of the politics that existed in Washington that are very polarized, and not a lot seems to get done.

Because if you approach these really complicated issues, looking through a pure ideological prism, you're not going to solve these issues. You need to have a practical, common-sense approach. Everybody back here in Washington, I think, recognizes that this Congress was called the do-nothing Congress in this past term because not a lot did get done. I think everyone's going to be measured by how much they do get things done, and at the end of the day, that requires practical approaches as opposed to ideological approaches.

SEABROOK: There will be 44 Blue Dogs, is that correct? The 44 Blue Dogs could, in fact, even swing the majority in the House of Representatives. Would the Blue Dogs consider voting with the Republicans, a Republican block, on a bill?

Rep. MATHESON: Well, let me be clear. The Blue Dogs are all Democrats, they are. And I'll tell you, in terms of wearing the Democratic label, I think they're the true Democrats, because that label usually hurts them when they're running for election. And so they wear that badge when it's not an asset, but in some ways it hurts them. So I characterize Blue Dogs as true Democrats. But they're willing to work in a bipartisan way, and they're willing to look for solutions. They always have been, and I'm willing to sit down with anybody and sit across the table, and let's have an exchange, and let's find out if - they may have some good ideas, too, and if they do, bring them on in, because we're looking for the best solution we can.

SEABROOK: Lastly, Congressman Matheson, where does the term Blue Dog come from?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. MATHESON: Well, there are various stories about that, and it was a little before my time, but the story that I usually tell is that, you know, we had a term for a long time in politics called the Yellow Dog Democrat, which is that people would say I'll vote for a Democrat even if it's a yellow dog. And the word is, as I said, the Blue Dogs started right after the 1994 election, where there was a massive party change in Washington, and the Blue Dogs started to choke so hard on where the national party was going that they turned blue.

SEABROOK: I see. So blue in the face?

Rep. MATHESON: That's right.

SEABROOK: A group minted out of the minority. It'll be fascinating to see what they do now that they are part of the majority. Thank you very much, Jim Matheson, congressman from Utah.

Rep. MATHESON: Thank you.

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