Band of House centrists offers support for ‘robust’ public health insurance plan

A band of 22 New Democrat and Blue Dog lawmakers say they support a “robust” government-run health plan, boosting chances of moving healthcare reform with a public insurance plan through the House.

Democratic centrists remain the biggest obstacle to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) ability to pass a healthcare bill with a public plan, and many conservative Democrats oppose a public option as unfair to private insurers.

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But the letter from the 22 New Dems and Blue Dogs indicates opposition from this group is far from universal.

“We have a broader coalition to pass this than what was assumed before,” said Rep. Lois Capps (Calif.), a New Democrat who circulated the letter supporting a public option with Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “While we may belong to a more moderate branch, we want it known that we support the public option.”

The 20 New Democrats on the letter represent nearly one-third of the 68-member caucus. It is signed by two Blue Dogs and three members who are both New Dems and Blue Dogs.

Capps is one of several New Democrats who think the group’s leaders have given House leadership an inaccurate picture of where the centrist, business-friendly caucus stands on healthcare. On June 10, New Dem leaders sent a letter to Pelosi saying that “many of our members remain concerned about any public option.”

The new chairman of the New Democrats, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) has also pressed to ensure that Medicare providers are not required to participate in the public plan.

Capps thought that went beyond the position of many fellow New Dems.

“We haven’t had a vote,” Capps said. “We shouldn’t be taking a position.”

The letter she circulated supports using the Medicare provider network for a public plan but letting providers opt out.

New Dem leaders have also supported a “look-back” provision that would have a commission review a public plan after four years to see what is working and what isn’t. Capps criticized that as equivalent to the “trigger” supported by many Blue Dogs that would create a public plan only if the legislation failed to create competition.

There could still be enough opposition, particularly among conservatives, to sink a public option or other more liberal alternatives. But both Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) have said they are determined to pass a bill with a public plan that competes on a “level playing field” with private plans.

President Obama has also strongly supported a public option, but it has not been popular in the Senate.

Some House conservatives say that Pelosi and House leadership should not force vulnerable House members to cast a vote that will be unpopular in their districts but still won’t become law.

“Do I think newer members who won in conservative districts are being put in a tough spot? Yes, I do,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), a conservative Democrat and critic of the bill.

Republicans also say that centrist Democrats could be in trouble with their constituents if they vote for what the GOP has termed a “government takeover” of healthcare.

Many New Dems criticized their leaders and said they have not liked being lumped in with opponents of the bill, particularly the public plan.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a relatively new member of the group, said it should consider reviewing its practices.

“The New Dems need to discuss what process they’re going to use to give positions on legislation,” said DeGette, who signed the letter.

“There is some concern that some decisions come only from talk among New Dem leadership rather than the broader leadership,” said a New Democrat lawmaker. “A lot of decisions are made by New Dem leadership and not broadly discussed in membership meetings.”

That irritation is being expressed just as Crowley takes the reins of the business-friendly caucus. Though his ascension has been guaranteed for months, and he has met with leadership on healthcare issues for New Dems, he was formally elected chairman Thursday.

Some of the criticism reflects the way the group makes decisions. Blue Dogs require a vote of two-thirds of their caucus before taking an official position. New Dem positions are crafted by the group’s executive board after the caucus meets on an issue. New Dem aides said there were numerous such meetings on healthcare.

Crowley said he recognizes the diversity in his coalition. He said the group provided input to the Democratic leadership to help it formulate a bill that can pass. But he stressed that the New Dems have not taken any official position on the public option.

“At the end of the day what’s important is that we succeed as a Democratic Caucus and we as the New Democrat Coalition play a role,” Crowley said.

Crowley said in an interview this week that there is a broad diversity of opinion in his group on healthcare.

“Some have said they will not be for a public option under any circumstance. And some support single-payer,” Crowley said.

Murphy, who worked with Capps on the letter, said he has no problems with the way Crowley and the group’s leadership have handled healthcare.

“New Dems have been very united by the idea that a public option works only if it’s on a level playing field,” Murphy said.