Pelosi paying a price for climate bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is paying a price on healthcare reform for the arm-twisting she did on the climate change bill last month.

Democratic House members were rankled by how the climate bill passed — and stunned by the criticism they got at home.

Those memories are fueling a revolt among conservative Blue Dogs and a drive among freshman lawmakers to drop plans for a surtax on the wealthy in healthcare reform.

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An aide to one conservative Democratic lawmaker said the climate bill was “really rammed down our throats.”

And there’s a general sense of unease among others members of the caucus.

“I think the well’s a bit poisoned,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). “A lot of people went home and got beaten up on climate. Now they want to make sure they understand it before they vote on it. People still want to do it. It’s just going to be a little bit harder.”

Many centrist Democrats pushed Pelosi and the Democratic leadership to put off the climate change debate and pass a healthcare overhaul first, giving members more time to work through the issues and get comfortable with the complex issue.

And what still rubs many members raw is that if the climate bill ever comes back from the Senate, it’s likely to be significantly weaker. So they voted for tough and expensive regulations that will likely never become law.

The fresh memory of the difficult vote has hit the Democrats’ plan to pass a healthcare bill before August like a Mack truck.

“People walked the plank and didn’t get protected,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Now they want them to walk the plank again.”

Despite a massive listening campaign organized by Pelosi and other leaders, the objections to the healthcare bill are coming from diverse parts of the caucus.

Freshmen are circulating a letter calling for the surtax to be eliminated because they believe it will unfairly hit small businesses.

“Republicans called the last one a tax increase and it wasn’t. But this one really is,” said an aide to one Democratic freshman lawmaker.

Blue Dogs have a host of complaints, starting with irritation that the bill doesn’t wring enough cost savings out of the healthcare system and leaves Medicare reimbursement unfairly low in their rural districts. They launched a formal protest last week that delayed the rollout of the House bill.

But after Pelosi introduced it with great fanfare Tuesday, Blue Dogs complained that few, if any, of their concerns were fixed.

So the Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have banded together to change the bill. They’ve warned they have the votes to stop the bill in at least one committee if those changes aren’t made.

The strategy is specifically designed to avoid the divide-and-conquer strategy they believe was used on opponents in the waning hours of the climate vote. To demonstrate solidarity, the seven Blue Dogs read identical statements at Thursday’s committee markup.

“The only thing Blue Dogs can do is put their eggs in each other’s baskets,” said a Blue Dog chief of staff.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), who is leading the Blue Dogs’ charge on healthcare, says that Democrats mixed up their priorities by putting climate change first. He said even many less conservative Democrats have thanked him for slowing the bill down.

“Passing climate change first has complicated getting healthcare done this year,” Ross said. “There’s not enough distance between them. The American people are ready for us to slow down.”

Other lawmakers say they appreciate the way Pelosi and the leadership have handled negotiations.

“I’ve been very impressed with how they’re listening to us,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who is organizing the freshman campaign against the surtax.

Republicans, who’ve had little to cheer about in recent elections, have been heartened by the signs of Democratic disarray. They’re looking for ways to capitalize, talking with centrist Democrats like the Blue Dogs.

“The cap-and-trade vote scared the Blue Dogs,” said Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “There’s a delta between the Blue Dogs and their leadership, and that delta gets bigger with every one of these hard-left votes.”

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Leadership aides note that Democrats aren’t lining up to oppose the bill so much as loudly declaring what they want in order to vote for it — a hopeful sign. Leaders have also committed to process changes like making a “manager’s amendment” revision available for 48 hours before the vote.

“The leadership is committed to working with every member of the caucus on a healthcare bill that lowers cost but doesn’t add to the deficit,” said a Democratic aide. “And we will always work to improve process.”

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) agreed that the cap-and-trade bill left lawmakers shaky, but he’s confident that the health vote will go differently.

“I think it has an impact psychologically,” Abercrombie said of the energy vote. “I don’t think the same dynamics are going to apply.”