Howard Dean claims that some Blue Dogs may back public option

While conservative Democrats in Congress are staying vague, one liberal organization is claiming several Blue Dogs will back a public option in the House's version of a healthcare bill.

Democracy for America, the group headed by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), claims support for a public option from 220 members of the House and 51 senators.

Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a physician by training, has pushed hard for a robust public option in the healthcare overhaul that comes out of Congress. After being passed over for a position in the Obama administration, Dean returned to his organization to pressure members of Congress from outside Washington.

But a number of the members from whom he claims to have support have remained mum publicly. And some, including several members of the Blue Dog Coalition, openly oppose a public option.

Among the members from whom Dean claims to have support is Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a co-chairwoman of the Blue Dog Coalition who has said the public option would be bad for physicians.

The National Republican Congressional Committee pounced on Dean's list, claiming it would give them ammunition to attack several vulnerable Democrats in next year's elections. Democratic Reps. John Boccieri (Ohio), Bobby Bright (Ala.), Kathy Dahlkemper (Pa.), Steve Driehaus (Ohio), Debbie Halvorson (Ill.), Betsy Markey (Colo.), Jerry McNerney (Calif.), Mark Schauer (Mich.) and Harry Teague (N.M.), all of whom are on the list, face tough reelection prospects.

"These Democrats who are on record supporting a government takeover of healthcare are now at serious risk of having their seats be taken over by a Republican challenger. If [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] has the votes, why not put everyone on record now?" taunted Paul Lindsay, an NRCC spokesman.

But not every member Dean says is with him actually backs a public option. Bright told The Hill in a recent interview he opposes it, but that he has not ruled out backing a measure that more closely resembles the Senate Finance Committee bill. Asked whether Bright's support has shifted in recent days, spokesman Lewis Lowe reiterated Bright's earlier position.

"I don't know where [Dean's group is] getting it from," Lowe said. "He's definitely opposed to the public option."

Others are similarly perplexed by the website. Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), another Blue Dog, "has not taken a position for or against it yet," spokesman Mike Jensen said in an e-mail.

Teague told the Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal last month that he does not believe a public option is necessary. His spokeswoman said Thursday that Dean's organization had never contacted the congressman's office about healthcare reform.

Mary Rickles, a spokeswoman for Dean's organization, said the organization had relied on a whip count from FireDogLake, a liberal blog that backs the public option, and from calls Democracy for America members and supporters made to their representatives. Those calls were fact-checked by the organization.

But, Rickles said, some members of Congress were inadvertently placed on the wrong list. Democracy for America is correcting Bright's entry, for example.

Meanwhile, some say they support a public option only if certain tough conditions are met. Markey supports a public option, she told the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune in late August, only if it is operated as a nonprofit, receives no government subsidies and costs nothing. Halvorson would support a public option not tied to Medicare.

Zack Pohl, a spokesman for Schauer's office said the freshman Democrat "believes health insurance reform should include a robust public option to promote competition, hold insurance companies accountable, and lower costs for consumers."

Rickles said even with the new edits, Dean's organization is confident a public option will pass.

"The majority of Americans say that they want [a public option], and we still have a majority of the people in the House and Senate who want it," she said. "If members of Congress vote for what their constituents support, then I think we'll get a robust public option in the end."