Few Dems in big races jump headlong into backing House healthcare bill

As Democrats in Congress struggle with a healthcare bill, Democrats running for office are treating it as a political hot potato.

Few Democrats in big races are jumping headlong into supporting the healthcare bill the House passed last weekend. While those running in blue areas or in tough Democratic primaries quibble with its abortion-funding restrictions, those running in red areas worry about the cost of the package.

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Already, the issue has become a key one in the special election for Ted Kennedy’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts, with two candidates saying they would oppose an abortion-restricting bill and a third candidate – Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca – using those stances against them in ads.

Other leading Democratic Senate candidates, including Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, have also expressed concern about Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) amendment, which states that no federal funding in the bill could be used for abortion.

Giannoulias campaign manager Tom Bowen said his boss “supports healthcare reform, and the House has got great stuff in there, but that’s not what he would like to see coming out of the final bill” – referring to the Stupak amendment.

Fisher also said the abortion provisions should be removed, though he hasn’t taken a firm stance on the package.

“We haven’t taken a position on the House bill, but we hope the Senate moves forward with meaningful reform that removes the Stupak amendment language,” Fisher spokeswoman Geri Prado said.

Similar to Fisher, Missouri Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan is keeping her powder dry. Republicans pointed to a YouTube video this week that showed the secretary of state repeatedly declining to give firm answers about where she stands on the bill.

“I'm a little concerned on the House bill about the affordability side,” Carnahan told the Associated Press. “I know, though, that it's an important first step to get that passed out of the House."

In contrast, some Democratic Senate candidates are simply opposing the packages. Both leading Democrats running in Texas have large reservations with the bills.

Houston Mayor Bill White said there is “much in the Senate Finance Committee bill that could expand coverage, but the price is too high, and I hope senators will improve the bill when it is on the floor.”

Former state Comptroller John Sharp said there are major problems in both the House and Senate bills. Specifically, he pointed to the House’s failure to address Medicare’s Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR) for physician payments and the Senate’s prohibition on volume discounts for Medicare patients’ prescription drugs.

“These volume discounts would save $184 billion a year that could be used to improve doctors’ access to patients,” Sharp said. “But they are not allowed because the big drug companies have sent too much money to Congress.”

Among Senate candidates currently serving in the House, four Democrats voted for the bill, while one voted against it.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) voted for the bill last weekend but now says he would oppose a bill with the Stupak language.

Among the other supporters, Reps. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) and Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) are both running in swing states, while Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) from the left.

All three proudly cast their votes on the bill, and all three were met with criticism from the GOP opponents.

The lone dissenter, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), is running against Republican Sen. David Vitter in deep red Louisiana. Melancon was highly critical of the bill, saying: “I can’t support a government-run insurance option that the people of Louisiana don't want.”

The campaigns of the two Democrats running against each other in Kentucky, state Attorney General Jack Conway and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, didn’t comment for this story. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.), who on Friday announced he wouldn’t run against Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), voted for the bill.

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Among House candidates, some running in swing or conservative districts have expressed support for the bill, including physicians Ami Bera and Manan Trivedi, who are running against Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and for the seat of Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), respectively.

“It’s a good first step that’s starting to move the conversation forward,” Bera told The Hill. “There’s still obviously a lot that needs to be worked through.”

Trivedi said the bill was a “strong step in the right direction,” but that system-wide clinical reform is needed.

Conversely, candidates like Palm Springs, Calif., Mayor Steve Pougnet are hedging their bets and waiting to see what bill comes out of the Senate and conference committee.

Pougnet is challenging Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.).

“Mayor Pougnet is committed to reform and, although he believes there are many more questions to be answered, he wants to ensure the process advances and looks forward to seeing what develops in the Senate,” said spokesman Jordan Marks.