March 18, 2010

Putting together health care reform with holdouts and back benchers

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It’s a dizzying, high wire act that’s now on display in Washington, D.C. It’s called putting a health care reform bill together. And just watching it happen is crazy-making. The vote could come as soon as this weekend.

President Obama is trying to rope them in – bringing together holdouts like abortion opponents who fear the bill expands access to abortion, and liberals arguing the bill does not go far enough to expand access to health care, in support of historic reform that could overhaul the nation’s health care system. And keeping track of the moving parts is a full-time job.

 But the parts are moving. A key Democratic holdout, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, became the first liberal opponent of the House bill to announce support for the more restrictive Senate legislation, the Los Angeles Times reported. At the same time, a key anti-abortion Democrat, Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, said he also would support the bill.

"If I can vote for this bill, there are not many others that shouldn't be able to," said Kucinich, a leader of the movement to provide universal healthcare by offering the Medicare program to all Americans. Among social conservatives, the legislation won an important new endorsement from dozens of leaders of Catholic nuns, including a group that says it represents more than 90% of the 59,000 nuns in the United States. That contrasted with the staunch opposition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a statement Monday arguing that the bill would not adequately guard against using federal funds for abortion. The nuns disagreed, and so did a retired bishop.

In Washington’s congressional delegation, eyes are on two Democratic congressmen — Rep. Brian Baird of Vancouver and Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma.  Baird is publicly reconsidering his previous vote opposing health care reform, the Seattle Times reports. The Clark County Democrat was one of 39 members of his party to vote against the bill when it passed the House by a vote of 220 to 215 in November, but now says he may change his vote. At the time, Baird opposed the bill because House leaders at the time attempted to stifle amendments to the bill. The current bill is a different piece of legislation, he says. Attention also is focused on Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, who supported the health care reform bill last year but now says  he is waiting to see the amendments before deciding how to vote.

If you think the pressure isn't intense on these folks, think again. Baird, for example, has received 4,000 phone calls in the past week. The calls have come from all over the country, reports Kathie Durbin of The Columbian.

“It paralyzes us to some degree,” Baird said. “Everyone is treating all the callers with utmost courtesy.” But some calls are obviously responses to exhortations from talk radio hosts, he said, and some callers appear to have no idea who they are talking to.

Much of that pressure from outside his district comes from churn from talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh urges his listeners repeatedly to "melt down" congressional phone lines, and his Web site has a "Code Red Target List" that includes Baird.

Baird, who is retiring after his current term, met with Obama this week in the Oval Office – a first for him. But neither the pressure from the right nor the meeting with the President is going to his head. He's holding out to see a budget analysis before deciding how to vote on the bill.

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