Gangs and Dogs

Posted May 07, 2009, at 4:08 p.m.

After holding majorities in both houses of Congress for most of 12 years, Republicans were pushed aside by Democrats in 2006 and then lost even more seats in 2008. It may seem as though a monolithic Democratic Party will hold sway in Congress; in fact, a more nuanced dynamic likely will play out. Something lost in the sharp partisan rhetoric that dominates cable TV is that senators and representatives often align with like-minded members of the opposite party based on region or shared concerns. These coalitions may be more influential in the coming months.

The coalitions also include factions within a party. Rep. Mike Michaud touts his membership in the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group that works to rein in government spending. Rep. Michaud broke ranks with his party and voted against the bank bailout package last fall. Just days ago, Rep. Michaud joined his fellow Blue Dogs in proposing a bill to re-institute “pay-as-you -go” laws in budgeting.

Rep. Michaud actually had to apply and be interviewed to gain membership in the Blue Dogs, he said. No more than 20 percent of the Democrats in the House can be members, which helps the group remain focused on its agenda. Rep. Michaud said he hopes the Blue Dogs stand firm in their opposition to excessive government spending even though a Democrat is in the White House; he said the group pressured President Obama to include the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the budget. Rep. Michaud also created a 37-member bipartisan group in the House focused on protecting domestic jobs from bad foreign trade deals.

Since his party has a large majority in Congress, Rep. Michaud expects more splits with the Democratic caucus.

Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican whose vote (along with her Republican colleague Olympia Snowe’s) is highly sought after by the Obama White House, also works effectively in coalitions. Sen. Collins has said her membership in the bipartisan Gang of 14 (evenly split among the parties) and Gang of 20 (14 Democrats and six Republicans) has allowed her to speak moderate truth to partisan power.

Her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, said the Gang of 14 worked to avert a filibuster over President Bush’s federal court nominations, while the Gang of 20 helped pass the president’s stimulus package. One interesting wrinkle, Mr. Kelley pointed out, is that moderate Democrats in the Gang of 20, by relying on the group’s clout, were able to influence the legislation. Without that influence, the bill might have failed to get those Democratic votes.

Look for more such groups to emerge in the coming weeks as moderate Republicans work to stave off disenfranchisement by aligning with like-minded Democrats. Democrats who represent conservative states may also seek out moderate Republicans to join forces with on key issues as well.

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