Will Blue Dogs Sit on Healthcare?

Even as conservatives condemn Democrats for establishing America’s most-liberal agenda ever, it falls to a few House Democrats to stop a federal health care takeover.  Party leaders are so worried that they’re spending millions to avoid an internal revolt.

With 256 House members and 60 Senators, Democrats can pass almost anything they wish. The “almost” must be noted because a few Democrats say they might break ranks with the president and congressional leadership.  The question is whether they’ll actually do it.

In the House, the so-called “Blue Dog Democrats” — a caucus claiming fiscal and national security conservatism — may hold the fate of the president’s health care plan in their hands. In the Senate, a very few Democrats (some of them prominent) could also moderate or stop the radical plans.

Fear of desertion is so real that party generals launched TV campaigns last week aimed at their own people, and now have felt the need to expand the effort.  The original ad buy by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) aimed at Senators in eight states–Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio — and also runs on national cable.  But after negative comments and cautionary letters by some House Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a nervous DNC bought more air time this weekend, adding 15 media markets that focus on key House Democrats.

Another major TV campaign centered on Democrats continues in nine states, sponsored by a labor coalition, Health Care for America Now.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) first called his party’s TV campaign “a waste of money,” but then backtracked — a possible sign of trouble within his ranks.

Republicans can pound the podium, screech and holler, but the decisive health care votes belong to those who aren’t usually in the spotlight.  Two House committees have approved the bill, with all Republicans but only a combined six Democrats opposing it.  (They were Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), Ron Kind (D-Wi.), John Tanner (D-TN), Jason Altmire (D- Pa), Jared Polis (D-Co) and Dina Titus (D-Nv).)

In the third and final committee, seven Democrats must break ranks this week to scuttle the bill. 

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ar) could be a deal maker or deal breaker.  He’s the leader among seven Blue Dog Democrats on Chairman Henry Waxman’s House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Democrats have a 13-seat advantage over Republicans, so a unified swing of seven Blue Dogs could create a bipartisan majority able to un-do or revise Waxman’s bill.  But only IF they united in perfect unity, and only if no parliamentary shenanigans are used to change the rules.

The new DNC ad buy airs in the districts of all seven of these committee Blue Dogs.  Will their fiscal-conservative bark stop short of an actual bite?  The seven are:

•    Mike Ross, Ar
•    John Barrow, Ga
•    Baron P. Hill, In
•    Charlie Melancon, La
•    Zachary T. Space, Oh
•    Bart Gordon, Tn
•    Jim Matheson, Ut

The geography of the DNC’s expanded ad buy indicates possible concerns about other Democrats on Waxman’s committee, namely Bart Stupak (D-Mi), Mike Doyle (D-Pa) and Jay Inslee (D-Wa), plus an effort to woo over Republican help from Mary Bono Mack (R-Ca) or Greg Walden (R-Or).

Blue Dog leader Ross has latched onto warnings from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf that health care proposals would increase the cost of care — the opposite of claims from President Obama, Waxman and others. 

Ross said Elmendorf’s comments "underscore what the Blue Dogs have been saying all along. . . . We’ve been trying to tell everyone for months."

Ross says, “No way they can pass this bill on the House floor now.  No way. Not even close."

Of course, similar claims were made that fellow Democrats would bring down Waxman’s energy tax bill a few weeks ago.  But threats from Agriculture Committee Chairman Colin Peterson (D-Mn) evaporated under pressure from Speaker Pelosi. 

Despite what happens in committee, Pelosi can bring whatever she wants directly to the House floor, where her party holds a 78-seat advantage over Republicans.  It would take a rebellion of monumental proportions to lose a key vote despite those numbers.  But a loss in committee would be more than embarrassing, because it could embolden other House Democrats to stand up against their leaders.

But over on the Senate side, who are the targets of the ads?

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ar) is one “maybe” on liberal health care reform.  According to her statements, though, an even-bigger bill might win her support.  That’s because she says her top priority is that “health reform should result in health coverage for all Arkansas.”  Despite its expense, the current bill would leave many millions of Americans uncovered.  Covering more would raise the already-gigantic costs even higher.

Fellow Arkansan Sen. Mark Pryor is another “maybe” who is carefully monitoring public opinion.

Florida’s two Senators are of different political parties.  Republican Mel Martinez is an expected “no,” but Democrat Bill Nelson says he’s keeping an open mind.  About costs, Nelson says, “I’m fighting . . . to make sure the insurance industry and drug makers pay their fair share of the cost before anyone starts thinking about increasing folks’ income taxes or putting new levies on stuff like beer and soda.”  

Statements by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-In) have been models of ambiguity.  He’s widely considered a “maybe” who leans toward “no” on the massive takeover bills.  Fellow Republican Sen. Richard Lugar (R-In) is an expected no.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La) is glued to the public opinion polls, knowing that her Republican counterpart, Sen. David Vitter, staunchly opposes the bill.  Howard Dean has labeled Landrieu a “sellout” because her campaign received $1.6 million from the health-care industry and she has not endorsed the concept of a government-run health insurance plan.
Maine is one DNC target without a Democrat in the crosshairs, but Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — Collins in particular — are both possible across-the-aisle pickups.  Collins is getting presidential face time and wooing.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb) told reporters that the DNC advertising will not influence his decision on health care reform. A publicly-run health insurance plan "will materially and adversely effect the insurance of 200 million Americans who are currently covered," he says.   Republican counterpart Sen. Mike Johanns should be a solid no.

In North Dakota, Democrat Byron Dorgan’s yes vote could be countered by Sen. Kent Conrad’s.  Maybe.  Conrad’s budget concerns top his list; he wants to keep on the table a possible tax on health care benefits.  He should worry about the numbers, since he chairs the Budget Committee.

The Ohio ads don’t target Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) so much as Sen. George Voinovich (R, OH), who is seen as a gettable vote due to his moderate record and lame-duck status.  
Some Democrats are winning favorable hometown headlines for standing up against their own party’s juggernaut.  If they cave, the political fall-out may be worse than if they’d remained silent.  Everybody remembers the student who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square.  Nobody knows those who broke and ran.