Blue Dogs don't bite, but will they even bark?

For all the trouble it caused Democratic leaders over the health care reform bill, the House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition was surprisingly silent when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally dropped the 2,000-page, $1.05 trillion legislation.

The 51 Blue Dog members sent a letter late Thursday to Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf, asking for him to say whether the bill would reduce the long-term costs of health care to the federal government. But the normally noisy group was hard to find after Pelosi's bill hit.

The CBO estimates the cost of the legislation to be $1.05 trillion, up from the $894 billion price tag House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had announced. The CBO also found that the bill would cut the deficit by more than $100 billion over 10 years through $740 billion in new taxes and a net $426 billion in cuts, mostly to the Medicare program for seniors.

When Pelosi announced the legislation, there was no Blue Dog press statement or news conference complaining of the bill's staggering cost, tax increases or establishment of a huge government entitlement plan. And the members of the group that famously stalled the bill before the August recess who could be found said the legislation would likely pass the House.

That may be because the Blue Dogs, once famed as fiscal watchdogs on the Democratic side of the aisle, got their way on a key provision in the bill that will actually lead to more lavish spending.

The group, which includes many members from rural districts, beat back a move by liberals to link payments under the new government insurance plan to the rates paid to doctors and hospitals under Medicare. Medicare rates in rural states are dramatically lower than those in cities and suburbs, meaning the liberal plan could have saved billions over the years but at the cost of care in many Blue Dog districts.

Negotiable Medicare rates were “the critical element that was successfully resolved in my view,” Blue Dog Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., told The Examiner. “With the action the speaker has taken, this bill will pass the House.”

The move to let doctors and hospitals negotiate rates drove up the cost of the bill, but it bought the support of at least some Blue Dogs, who now seem willing to vote for the health care reform even if it means risking the fiscal restraint many of them tout to their Republican-leaning constituents at election time.

Many of the Blue Dogs are from districts that voted Republican in the last presidential election and some are among the most electorally vulnerable in the House, including freshmen Frank Kratovil, of Maryland, and Bobby Bright, of Alabama, who are from historically Republican districts and slipped to victory on the coattails of Barack Obama.

Neither lawmaker has decided whether to back the House bill, and both are among many Blue Dogs who declined to be interviewed on the subject.

sferrechio@washingtonexaminer.com

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