Sestak uses healthcare debate to go left in Senate Dem primary against Specter

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is using the healthcare debate to move to the left of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the battle for the Democratic Senate nomination.

Sestak criticized the Republican-turned-Democrat for not fighting for a public option in the healthcare reform bill.

“If I had been over there [in the Senate], instead of going around Pennsylvania like Arlen Specter did over the past summer, [where he] said, ‘Oh, all the options are on the table, even single-payer,’ I would have been back in the Senate shaping that bill. Like I did here in the House, helping to shape it with the public option,” Sestak told The Hill.

Specter countered: “I don’t know what he expected me to do in August; nobody was around Washington.”

But neither man would say how he would vote on the final version of the bill.

Sestak voted for the House version, which contained the public option, but said he’s “opposed” to the Senate version, which doesn’t contain a government-administered insurance plan or optional Medicare buy-in for older Americans.

“Right now I’m opposed to what they have there,” Sestak said. “I don’t think it goes well enough; I don’t think we’ve had enough leadership over there to effect the needed change.”

Specter hinted he’d accept the stripped-down Senate version of the bill.

“We had a caucus last evening and a lot of long speeches, and when my turn came, I said, ‘I have two sentences.’ Sentence No. 1 is: The bill is better than what we have now. The second sentence was: Let’s not let the obstructionists stop us from governing,” Specter told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “And that’s why I came over to add the 60th vote so that we could move ahead on the important problems facing America.”

But in an interview with The Hill, Specter was noncommittal.

“I want to see exactly what the final product looks like,” he said. “We’re still battling behind the scenes on some of it.”

But he made it clear he supported a “robust public option.”

“I have been for a robust public option,” he said. “I’ve spoken on the floor about it and fought for it behind the scenes. When Sestak is complaining, I’ve been in the thick of the fight. Where’s he been? He’s got the worst voting record of any member of the Pennsylvania delegation.”

Asked if it would be hard for Democrats to campaign on a bill that didn’t include a public option, Specter said, “The question really is, Where would I feel the most uncomfortable, going back to Pennsylvania empty-handed, or going back with a cup that is 80 percent full? I’m still weighing that, until the roll is called.”

Sestak said he didn’t want to make a definitive statement on how he’d vote until he saw the final version of the legislation.

“I’ll wait to see what comes out of the conference before I make the final determination,” he said. “It if doesn’t have the public option, but it has something that achieves it and it’s called a dog or a cat or a horse, I’ll support it. But it’s got to have something … that begins to reform healthcare costs.”

Pennsylvania saw a record number of Democratic voters register in 2008. About 200,000 Republicans switched parties to vote in the Democratic presidential primary and haven’t changed back. President Barack Obama carried the state by 10 points.

Specter changed parties in April this year amid worries he would lose the GOP primary to former Rep. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who gave Specter a tough fight in the 2004 Republican primary.

Even before the party switch, Specter was known as a centrist, and he voted for Obama’s stimulus package in February. Polls have shown him leading Sestak consistently among primary voters.

Sestak had been touted as a possible Specter challenger before the party switch and questioned Specter’s Democratic credentials even before he got into the race.

He continued to remain critical of Specter on the healthcare bill.

“I think it’s a failure of leadership,” he said. “It’s not the bill we want.”

Healthcare may be the issue on which Specter is the most vulnerable. In two town hall meetings in August, he was angrily confronted by constituents, and those confrontations received a lot of play on cable news.

Specter noted: “I spent the month [of August] fighting for healthcare to try to develop a public understanding of what was going on.”

In the town halls, he said, “I was defending the president’s program. Now, Congressman Sestak doesn’t have the experience or fortitude to do something like that.”

Specter’s campaign noted the senator’s “considerable” experience in the healthcare debate.

“He also takes seriously his duty to get around the state and meet face to face with his constituents,” Christopher Nicholas, Specter’s campaign manager, said in a statement e-mailed to The Hill. “Sestak, who has missed 127 votes this year and has the worst attendance record in the state, is the one who needs to spend more time in Washington, fulfilling his basic duty of voting on the House floor.”

Sestak was also critical of Obama, who has raised money for Specter’s reelection effort. Sestak said he has the “greatest respect for this president,” before launching into a critique of his handling of the healthcare bill.

“I wish he had had a stronger hand on the tiller of the healthcare reform bill that was going through the House and the Senate since last spring,” he said. “People respect him greatly, and if he’d had a stronger hand on the tiller, I think we’d be further along than we are today.”

 Sestak said he’s worried that a failure to pass a robust healthcare reform bill will hurt Democrats’ chances in 2010.

 “I find already there’s disappointment in parts of the Democratic Party over how this bill continues to be chipped away at, so yeah, I do think it’s going to be an issue,” he said. “We were given an opportunity to try to effect change.”