Senators on sidelines as House vote looms

Many Senate Democrats are choosing not to lobby House members in their state delegations on the healthcare bill.

While a handful of senators who were once House members have informally reached out to former colleagues, many others are keeping a distance from the intense whipping going on in the Senate.

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They note that neither the Obama administration nor House leaders have asked for the help from the Senate, which many House members don’t trust because of a backload of House-approved legislation that has stalled in the Senate.

Some senators think their involvement at a critical stage in the healthcare debate could be counterproductive.

“I’m happy to do it if asked, but the question is whether pressure from the Senate helps or not,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), whose House colleague John Adler (D-N.J.) is a probable no.

 Other senators said they have avoided lobbying any House members out of respect for the House and for senior members of their delegations.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) pointed to 33-year Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a likely “no” vote who faces a tough reelection challenge this fall.

 “He’s a senior member of our delegation, and it’s a little unseemly for a new kid on the block to try and tell him how to vote on anything,” said McCaskill, who was elected in 2006.

Other Senate Democrats said their hands are tied because their colleagues seem entrenched in their positions.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) noted that Indiana Rep. Joe Donnelly (D) objects to abortion language in the bill — “a matter of conscience that would be inappropriate to lobby him about.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) also seems to have made up his mind.

“He told me how he’s going to vote, and I figure that’s the end of it,” Klobuchar said.

Freshman Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) got involved, but it didn’t appear to work.

She said she used a plane ride from North Carolina to Washington to try to allay freshman Rep. Larry Kissell’s (D-N.C.) concerns about the bill’s effect on Medicare. Hagan said Kissell said he still planned to vote no.

House leaders are preparing for a tight vote that could occur this weekend. They’ll be considering the Senate-approved bill as well as a package of changes to that legislation that would then go to the Senate.

Because so many House members dislike the Senate bill, the House may vote on a rule that deems the Senate bill as having been passed and that moves the package of changes forward. That would avoid a roll-call vote on the actual Senate bill.

The senators lobbying House members the most are former House lawmakers themselves.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who was elected to the Senate in 2006 after 20 years in the House, said he has talked to about a half-dozen House Democrats to assuage their concerns over reconciliation.

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“I’ve tried to give them the sense that we’re in this together to get the healthcare bill done and that there was a great deal of understanding on our side to use whatever procedures we could to help them with modifications,” said Cardin.

Cardin’s colleague, Maryland Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, is among the 37 likely “no” votes by House Democrats, according to a whip count maintained by The Hill.

 Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), has phoned some members of the House’s conservative Blue Dog Coalition that he knew well during his 10 years in the House. Carper said he told them that former President Bill Clinton said he has had to listen to Republicans distort his healthcare attempt for the past 15 years, and that if the current bill fails, there will be another 15 years of distortions about what Obama tried to accomplish. Carper’s bottom-line message: “Winners write the history books.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who served 14 years in the House, said he has talked with about 20 House Democrats, “encouraging them and telling them we’re going to do it right over here.”

Ohio Democratic Reps. Steve Driehaus and Dennis Kucinich are also among the 37 likely Democratic “no” votes, though Kucinich has also come under pressure from President Barack Obama to switch his vote. He scheduled a press conference for Wednesday to announce his position.

“They just need to trust that we’ll do it right, and I think enough of us talking to them will help them do that,” Brown said.

A fourth former House member, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), also said he has talked to “a few” colleagues in the House, as did Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) at a St. Patrick’s Day parade over the weekend. Two of Casey’s delegation members — Democratic Reps. Chris Carney and Paul Kanjorski — are among the 37 likely “no” votes.