Retiring Democrats key to healthcare push

Democratic lawmakers not seeking reelection in a tough political environment are at the center of party efforts to secure passage of healthcare reform.

Alone, the handful of House members do not make up a large enough bloc to assure a Democratic victory, even if they all came together behind the push by President Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMellman: Rating the presidents Webb: The future of conservatism Moulitsas: Trump’s warped sense of reality MORE and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But locking down lawmakers with little reason to be nervous about paying a political price is a much easier task, especially for Pelosi and her allies in the House.

The most obvious targets are Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.). Each has expressed openness to supporting the bill, or is at least undecided.

The math in the House is not kind to Pelosi, and that makes each vote precious. Thirty-nine House Democrats voted against the lower chamber’s bill in November, and supporters must change some minds.

A rift over whether the Senate bill, which forms the foundation of the final measure, prohibits federal dollars from covering abortion puts at risk a contingent of Democrats who voted in favor of the House bill; according to Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the sponsor of stronger anti-abortion-rights language in the House bill, about a dozen members will not support the Senate bill over the issue.

Democrats facing top-tier Republican challengers, House members running for the Senate and lawmakers in their first or second terms have shown extreme reluctance to switch their vote to back the final bill. Some, such as Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.), are even considering doing the converse by voting against healthcare reform after supporting it last year.

But some retiring members who opposed the House bill have dropped hints that their votes are back in play.

Most recently, a senior Tanner aide indicated that he has not taken a position. While far from an endorsement, that position is a shift in Pelosi’s favor.

“We expect a new bill of some sort to come before the House. Until we know what that bill will include, how will it be brought to the floor and what the Congressional Budget Office says regarding its cost, there is no way for [Congressman] Tanner to declare his support or opposition,” his chief of staff, Randy Ford, told on Friday.

In February, Baird told The Hill that he is considering supporting healthcare reform — and that he’s not the only opponent of the House bill doing so.

“I think a number of people might still be in play, myself included,” he said. “I would probably lean more toward a Senate-type bill.”

As a committee chairman, Gordon is the only member of this group who is part of the Democratic Caucus’s leadership structure. He has kept his cards closer to his vest but may have tipped his hand slightly this week.

“I voted against the House bill in November because it expanded coverage but did not do enough to bring down costs. I’m pleased to see the discussion moving in a more fiscally responsible direction now,” he said Thursday in a statement to The New York Times.

Retirement does not always provide an incentive to back party leaders, of course. Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) opposed the House healthcare bill and is seeking a Senate seat, which all but puts him out of reach. Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) is also running for Senate and, though he voted for the House bill, shares Stupak’s concerns about the abortion language.