Group seeks Dem pledge on health bill

A simple pledge to read the healthcare bill and make it available to the public three days before holding a vote is putting Democrats in a difficult bind.

A conservative group called Let Freedom Ring has spent the last two months asking all 535 members of the House and Senate to sign a pledge not to vote for a healthcare bill they haven’t read personally in its entirety and is not made available to the public on the Internet at least 72 hours before a vote is held.

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So far, only 114 senators and House members – all Republican – have signed what the group is calling the Responsible Healthcare Reform pledge, and Let Freedom Ring plans to intensify its campaign throughout the recess and when Congress returns after Labor Day.

Colin Hanna, the group’s executive director, this month asked Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) at a townhall meeting in Philadelphia if he would sign the pledge. Earlier at the gathering, Sestak had said he had read the more-than 1,000-page bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed before the August recess.

Sestak, who is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in the Democratic primary, said he had no problem with the first part of the pledge, to read the bill, because he had already done so. But the second part, he said, he couldn’t sign without speaking to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) first because he could not control how a bill is brought to the floor for a vote and Democrats have not lived up to past promises to provide ample time for opponents and the public to read bills before a vote is held.

“I want to talk to Ms. Pelosi on this one…and here’s why: all of a sudden to deny my district the right to cast the vote…we have told the other side you’ll have 'x' amount of days to look at [bills] and we haven’t kept that promise.”

The crowd groaned when Sestak mentioned Pelosi and cheered Hanna’s follow-up statement about the need for members of Congress to commit to complete transparency when it comes to such a sweeping healthcare overhaul.

Spokesman Jonathon Dworkin said Sestak would bring the issue up with Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) when Congress returns in September.

“He supports what the pledge says and he has read the bill, but he will not allow himself to be forced to vote against an incredibly important, landmark piece of legislation because of something out of his control,” Dworkin said.

Staffers at Let Freedom Ring have faxed, e-mailed and called each member of Congress multiple times, and are now concentrating their efforts on vulnerable, conservative Blue Dog Democrats, many of whom helped prevent their leadership from passing a bill out of committee before the August recess.

The public was outraged after learning that the economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year contained language allowing bonuses for AIG executives.  Lawmakers said they didn’t know the bill contained the language when they voted on it, which sparked widespread alarm that Congress was passing measures so quickly that neither lawmakers nor the public had time to scrutinize them.

“It seems timely to suggest that members of the House and Senate first pledge to read the bill but also recognize the scope of this proposed bill and make sure the American public has the chance to see what’s in it before it’s voted on,” Hanna said.

Hanna pledged to keep the pressure on the Blue Dogs and other vulnerable Democratic members.

“Democratic members who think they should not sign the pledge because their leaders don’t want them to make that decision at their own peril,” he warned.

The offices of several leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition, including Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), Baron Hill (Ind.), Charlie Melancon (La.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.), did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Before the August break, Herseth Sandlin issued a statement on healthcare reform, giving the coalition credit for preventing a House vote before the recess, and pledging to fight any bill that is not deficit neutral and does not preserve competition in the marketplace.

“While it appears ongoing negotiations at the committee level have yielded a number of important concessions in the direction of our principles, many Blue Dogs remain concerned with various aspects of the bill draft,” she said in the statement. “We remain committed to being a positive and productive influence in the process and improving the bill even further, including through the amendment process in committee.”