Roll Call: Blue Dogs Eye Senate Deal
By Steven T. Dennis
Roll Call Staff
Sen. Joe Lieberman's (ID-Conn.) success in bending the Senate health care bill to his will has House liberals up in arms and threatening a mutiny — but the Senate's rightward turn could win the votes of fiscally conservative Blue Dog House Democrats.
The House health care bill passed 220-215, with nearly every House liberal voting for it but many Blue Dogs voting "no." Some opposed the bill's public insurance option; others said the House bill cost too much.
With the Senate bill expected to come in both cheaper and without the public plan, some of those Blue Dogs say they plan to take a fresh look at the bill.
If any more liberals bolt, Democratic leaders may need their votes.
Sophomore Blue Dog Rep. Jason Altmire (Pa.) said he'd like to vote for the final bill if it meets his requirements.
"My primary concern is bringing down the cost curve on health care, and the House bill did nothing on that," he said. "The Senate bill is much better on that, and I want to vote for a health care bill."
Altmire also said he didn't think liberals would be very successful in altering the Senate bill once it passes.
"They'll have walked the tightrope to do it and get 60 votes, and I don't know what leverage we have to change it," he said.
Retiring Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a senior Blue Dog, said he's weighing the need to expand access with the need to shrink health care inflation. "If you don't bend the cost curve, you don't solve the problem," he said.
"I've always said we need to do health care reform," Blue Dog Co-Chairman Jim Matheson (Utah) said. Matheson, like the other Blue Dogs interviewed, cautioned that he wants to read the bill the Senate comes up with and the analysis from the Congressional Budget Office first to see how it controls costs.
"I believe that we do need a health care reform bill," said Rep. Rick Boucher (Va.), who is not a Blue Dog but voted against the House bill. "The present system is unsustainable. I intend to evaluate carefully the measure that is presented to the House and will decide based on the provisions," he said.
Liberals, meanwhile, weighed whether to reject the Senate bill and try to force leadership to go through the reconciliation process to push a public insurance option through the Senate.
"The test is this: Will it advance our cause to have universal health care in America if we scrap this bill and start over again, or will it be more advantageous to hold our noses and vote for it and then try to amend it?" Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (Mich.) said. "We could go through reconciliation instead of losing sleep over getting 60 votes."
Senate Democratic leaders have put reconciliation on a shelf, arguing that it would gut important pieces of the bill. But that's cold comfort to liberals who feel the bill has already been gutted and has become a bonanza for the health insurance industry.
"By now, everyone's in a state of almost panic," Rep. Maxine Waters (Calif.) said. But she said it was too early to say whether liberals would vote to kill the bill.
But Waters noted that threat could be forthcoming.
"Based on our demonstrated willingness to withhold our votes, I don't think we can be taken for granted," she said.
Waters has been trumpeting the Congressional Black Caucus' success in forcing the White House to back a $4 billion housing package on the financial reform bill, which came after Waters led a CBC walkout at the committee level.
Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) said he is still pushing for reconciliation. "It's the Lieberman bill now," he said. "I don't know that there is much support for that, if at all," he said. Even a personal appeal from President Barack Obama to pass his top priority may not be enough, Grijalva said.
"It's going to be tough, real tough," he said.
Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.) noted that he pledged not to vote for any bill that doesn't have a public option, but he said he plans to read the Senate bill first before making up his mind on what to do.
"There is a high threshold before I change my mind on that pledge," he said.
Other liberals were urging their colleagues to calm down and keep perspective.
"I think we should all keep our powder dry," Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.) said. "If we have a bill that moves the ball forward, we should support it. The alternative is the status quo."
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