Democratic centrists formed own unique bloc in healthcare amendment votes

This week’s healthcare votes in the Senate came with a successful but important lesson for Democratic leaders: Do not rely on the votes of Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln or Ben Nelson.

During the two-day voting marathon on amendments to the healthcare reconciliation bill, the three Democratic centrists bucked their party more than any other of their 56 colleagues in the upper chamber. Out of 42 votes over 14 hours, Bayh (Ind.) defected 17 times, Lincoln (Ark.) strayed 12 times and Nelson (Neb.) crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans 25 times.

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The trio weren’t the only Democrats to defect on the bill that made “fix-it” changes to the original healthcare bill passed by the Senate in December and by the House last weekend. Conservative Democrat Jim Webb (Va.) also strayed on eight votes, while Mark Pryor (Ark.) crossed the aisle six times. But all other defections were occasional and few.

On the final vote of passage, Bayh supported the bill, while Lincoln, Nelson and Pryor all opposed it. Pryor’s vote was widely seen by his colleagues as a courtesy move to protect Lincoln’s flank from any potential negative campaign ads this fall. The three were the only Democrats to oppose the bill’s final approval.

It was Bayh, Lincoln and Nelson who attracted the most notice over the two days of voting, and who had the most explaining to do. All three said they notified Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) or Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of their intentions to prevent any surprises.

On one hand, there were no surprises. Bayh is not seeking re-election this fall, and has made no secret of his disappointment with the current state of the Senate. Lincoln is locked in a tough re-election battle — polls show her trailing five out of her six potential Republican challengers. And Nelson has taken a beating from conservative Nebraska voters, and is likely to end up on a GOP hit list for his 2012 re-election bid.

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst for The Cook Political Report, said there is no common theme among the three Democratic defectors.

“Nelson is definitely doing penance for his original healthcare vote, which has really hurt him at home,” Duffy said. “Bayh does feel freer, as does every other senator who is retiring. "Lincoln is walking a fine line between a primary opponent running to her left who wants to see her support the Democratic position, and general election voters who don't. This probably explains why she supported some provisions to a bill she ultimately voted against."

Democratic leaders said they never sweated the defections, and that they simply prove the party’s diversity.

“We’re very gratified — 56 votes is more than we thought we’d have,” said Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It’s more than the number of commitments Harry made to Nancy Pelosi. And it’s an example of the momentum that’s moving in our direction… Everyone says we didn’t get Republicans, and it’s true. We didn’t. But the party itself is very diverse. When you have 59 members, they span from very liberal people to very conservative people.”

Independents such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut said while there are “unquestionably” fewer moderates in the current Democratic Party, the senators’ votes this week do not necessarily point to a troublesome trend for the party.

“The story of American politics is that when one of the two parties gets to a majority, to govern and win elections you have to bring together minorities, and that means you have to have room in the party for a lot of different people,” Lieberman said. “The parties are stronger when there’s diversity, and that’s how you win elections. On something like this, with someone like Ben, it’s more of a reflection about how he felt about this legislation.”

Indeed, Nelson on Thursday said his opposition was no surprise to his colleagues and that his voting pattern was more about ideology than loyalty.

“I voted independently, not with or against any caucus, but on my own, making no decision about whether I could support this amendment or that one,” Nelson told reporters. “I had told them I wouldn’t be part of a bloc to vote any certain way.”

Bayh said he stepped away from his colleagues this week because he sensed it was obvious that the reconciliation bill was headed back to the House — despite Democratic leaders’ urging that the caucus lock down against any amendments. He also described as “simple” the reasons he voted for the amendments yet for the final bill: “I wanted to improve the bill.”

“When those amendments failed, I thought the bill was better than nothing,” Bayh told The Hill. “For example, getting the ‘Cornhusker Kickback’ out of there, and some of those other provisions, I thought it would be improved.”

Bayh also took issue with the theory some Republicans were pushing at the end of the week: that the centrists’ votes showed the Democratic Party has drifted too far left and no longer has any room for moderate viewpoints.

“I would look at it in a little bit of a different way — this wasn’t really so much about ideology as it was about whether you accepted the argument that any amendment was going to imperil the bill,” Bayh said. “I didn’t believe that, because I thought that if there were things that would improve the bill, the House was going to be likely to accept them anyway. Some other people accepted the argument that any change was going to lead to defeat. I didn’t accept that that was the case.”

Lincoln, who was among the last Democrats to support the base healthcare bill last December, said her votes this week only represent her stance on the issue, not any larger issue with the party.

Lincoln also noted that she had previously announced her opposition to the strategy of using the reconciliation process to pass the bill, and that she made no secret of her opinion that Democratic leaders were not as transparent during the process as possible.

“I’ve always been proud to be a Democrat — always have been, and always will be,” Lincoln told The Hill. “I made this decision because of the way the healthcare debate has been handled. I’m very proud of my vote on Christmas Eve, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and go talk to the people of Arkansas on the good things in the bill.

“But I argued very strongly for transparency. What the American people want right now is to be a part of what we do, and to better understand it, and transparency is a big part of that. This process has definitely not been transparent.”