Blue Dogs threaten to bring down Pelosi’s healthcare bill

Centrist Democrats are threatening to oppose their party’s healthcare legislation unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) accepts changes that make the bill more to their liking.

Seven Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have banded together to draft amendments that they’ll co-sponsor in the committee markup, which starts Thursday. Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the Blue Dogs’ point man on healthcare, says if those changes aren’t accepted, they’ll vote down the bill.

“We cannot support the current bill,” Ross said. “Last time I checked, it took seven Democrats to stop a bill in Energy and Commerce.”

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Ross knows of three additional Democrats on the committee who won’t support the bill in its current form, creating a base of 10 Democratic opponents. The committee has 59 members: 23 Republicans and 36 Democrats.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said he’s aware of the centrists’ concerns and is prepared to make changes even before the committee starts voting.

“Can a bunch of members bring a bill down? Sure,” Waxman said. “What we need to do is work together to pass a bill.”

Blue Dogs think the bill fails to do enough to reduce healthcare costs, jeopardizes jobs with a fee on employers that don’t provide health insurance, and would base a government-run healthcare plan on a Medicare payment system that already penalizes their rural districts.

One Blue Dog, Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), told a home-state paper that he will vote against the plan in the Ways and Means Committee markup unless that Medicare payment system is changed.

Blue Dogs had aired their complaints last week in a letter to Pelosi that caused her to delay the rollout of the bill until Tuesday. But when the bill was introduced, they felt Pelosi and the committee chairmen who wrote the legislation hadn’t taken their concerns into account.

That led to a tense session between Pelosi and Blue Dogs at the group’s regular Tuesday meeting hours after the rollout.

“The meeting did not go well. She just kept saying it was a good bill,” said one Blue Dog.

“There is a growing perception among many of us that our leadership meets with us but doesn’t listen to us,” said another Blue Dog.

Many centrists say that much of the frustration stems from the vote on the climate change bill just before the Fourth of July break, and the feeling that it was “jammed down the throat” of centrist lawmakers.

Pelosi cut deal after deal with individual lawmakers to squeak the bill out of committee and to the floor. Then lawmakers flew home and had to battle criticism from voters at the same time Republicans were saying Democrats passed an “energy tax.”

“They went home and got beat up about energy,” said a senior aide to a Blue Dog lawmaker. “Now you’re going to jam healthcare down their throat and send them home for a month?”

One of the goals of having the seven Blue Dog members band together is to guard against leadership picking centrists off one by one with side deals, as they feel was done during the energy vote.

 The group includes all the Blue Dogs on the committee except for Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.). They are Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Baron Hill (D-Ind.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah), Charlie Melancon (D-La.), Ross, and Zack Space (D-Ohio).

Many of their complaints mirror those made by Republicans, who sense an opportunity to capitalize on the Democrats’ dissatisfaction. Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the ranking Republican on the committee, said he and other Republicans are talking to Blue Dogs and other members about joining forces on certain provisions.

“I know how many votes we have — 23. I know how many votes it takes — 30. The question is whether there are seven Democrats who will go against Chairman Waxman and Speaker Pelosi,” Barton said.

But defections could be hard for Republicans to come by. As difficult as the climate change vote was, Republicans were unsuccessful in getting enough Democrats to block the bill.

 And what many Republicans oppose outright, Democratic centrists oppose in degree. For example, Republicans object to a government-run “public option.” Many Blue Dogs have come to accept that it will be part of the bill, but don’t want it to use reimbursement rates from Medicare that they believe shortchange their rural areas.

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Ross said he’s had no formal discussions with Barton and his group isn’t looking to forge an alliance with Republicans.

Vulnerable freshmen and sophomores from conservative districts are also worried about how lawmakers intend to pay for the overhaul. Freshmen from high-income coastal areas are especially worried about the surtax on the wealthy. Others are worried that they could be forced to vote on another kind of tax when the bill comes back from the Senate, meaning opponents would hit them for voting for two taxes.

“It’s more that it’s a tax, not this tax,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Raising taxes on the wealthy is the least painful version.”

Leaders of the other major centrist caucus, the New Democrat Coalition, are working more quietly with leaders on issues like ensuring that the new health system rewards the quality rather than the volume of care.