By Mike Soraghan and Jared Allen - 08/03/09 08:52 PM EDT
House liberals are offended that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mocked their threats to oppose a Democratic healthcare bill, saying leaders are underestimating their frustration over a deal cut with centrist Blue Dogs.
In a session with reporters before leaving for the August recess, Pelosi said, “Are you asking me are progressives going to vote against universal, quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans? No way.” Her directness elicited laughter in the room.
Woolsey is the author of a letter signed by 60 fellow House liberals vowing to vote against a deal cut with the Blue Dogs. Liberals feel the bill weakens the “public option,” the group’s signature issue in the healthcare debate.
“It didn’t take us very seriously,” Woolsey said. “She may be overlooking the strength behind the 60, and there are more who are absolutely committed to a robust public option.”
A spokesman for Pelosi said the Speaker, who is a long time member of the Progressive Caucus, does take the group’s concerns seriously.
“It is clear from the story that the Speaker’s reaction was in response to the notion that progressives would reject universal, quality, affordable healthcare for all,” said spokesman Nadeam Elshami. “Progressives, including the Speaker, have long supported that goal. The Progressive Caucus continues to play a major role in shaping that legislation, which the Speaker agrees must include a vigorous public option to help reduce healthcare costs for the American people.”
If Republicans vote en masse against the bill, as they’re expected to, 60 Democratic “no” votes would be enough to block it. But Pelosi isn’t the only one who doubts their resolve.
Woolsey said she talked to several of her fellow lawmakers Monday and that they were also upset by the statement.
“People just couldn’t believe she said that,” Woolsey said. “They figured she couldn’t have been quoted appropriately.”
The Progressive Caucus is working on a statement protesting Pelosi’s comments. Woolsey said the signers of the letter plan to “remind leadership” of the group’s support for a “robust public option.”
“Robust” to liberals generally means similar to Medicare. Liberals are irritated leaders granted Blue Dogs’ concessions that prevent the public option from using Medicare rates for reimbursement. They believe that will make care too expensive for many people.
Pelosi spent most of the last two weeks of the session trying to quell a rebellion among a band of seven Blue Dog Democrats who threatened to block the bill at the Energy and Commerce Committee, saying it didn’t do enough to cut costs. But in fixing that problem, she initiated an uprising among liberals.
Pelosi’s remark may have stiffened the resolve of many liberals. But leadership aides, centrist lawmakers and even some staffers of liberal members question whether liberals would kill the top domestic priority of a new Democratic president.
“I don’t have much faith. This has happened with Iraq and Afghanistan,” said a Democratic aide.
The aide noted that liberals backed down on threats to block funding for the war in Iraq, a key issue in giving Democrats the majority in 2006. Earlier this year, liberals complained about President Barack Obama’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan. A coordinated effort by liberals could have blocked the vote, but didn’t materialize.
Still, the aide said, there has been more talk among members and staff that it is time to take a stand with the party’s leadership.
“We have never yet said to our leadership this is a line in the sand for us,” Woolsey said.
But at least one of the 60 lawmakers who signed the letter admitted he might not be able to follow through on his threat.
Even Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) acknowledged it is “going to be difficult” to vote against a bill the president supports. But he said constituents of liberal lawmakers won’t punish them, because liberals have been making their beliefs on healthcare clear in campaigns for years.
Another signer of the letter, Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.), signed it after coming out of a briefing on the plan saying, “I don’t think what I heard in there was so radicalized I couldn’t support it.”
Another signer, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), said she could support a co-op alternative if it accomplishes the goal of increasing competition, explaining that she wants what she calls a “robust patient option.”
Still, leaders are trying to be reassuring to liberal members.
“I’d have a tough time believing that in the House that we would pass a bill that did not have a robust public option and an employer mandate,” said Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), who attended a strategy session of House liberals last week.
Becerra joined with other progressives — as well as a number of conservative Democrats — in handling Pelosi 63 Democratic votes against last year’s $700 billion Wall Street rescue. For Becerra and other liberal members, the bill failed to go far enough to protect low-income homeowners.
Those 63 votes against the bill, though, were more than offset by the 91 Republicans who voted in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. This time around, no one expects Pelosi and Obama to receive more than a handful of Republican votes — if any.