Some Democrats play hard-to-get as leaders hunt for healthcare votes

Facing a defining moment of their political careers, some House Democrats are publicly wrestling on how they will vote on healthcare reform.

For most members, the indecision is genuine. For others, it’s a leverage game to parlay their votes into getting something they want.

{mosads}The search for votes by House Democratic leaders and the White House has intensified. Over the next week and perhaps longer, the pressure to vote yes will be relentless as the Democratic Party inches closer to passing legislation it has been seeking for decades.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a critic of the Senate measure’s language on abortion and a likely no vote, told the National Review Online that the push to pass the bill has “reached an unhealthy stage. People are threatening ethics complaints on me…”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has expressed confidence that the votes will be there when the roll is called. Healthcare sources on and off Capitol Hill have different opinions on whether she is right, but they do agree that if she does get the votes, there won’t be many to spare.

With the election looming, many Democratic centrists in the House have declined to comment on which way they are leaning. Others have been more coy, saying both good things and bad things about the Senate bill they are expected to vote on by the end of the month, if not the end of this week.

Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who voted against the House healthcare bill in November, said on “Fox News Sunday” that he has an “open mind” about the final measure. Those kind of public comments invite long discussions with the Speaker, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and/or the president.

Holding out can lead to benefits. Reps. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who were undecided days before the Nov. 7, 2009, House healthcare vote, got language inserted in the measure for their districts.

Horsetrading, however, can be a dangerous game when the spotlight is so bright. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) secured language in the upper chamber measure that would have given his state preferential treatment on Medicaid payments. The public, including Nebraska constituents, lashed out against the deal, dubbed the “Cornhusker kickback.” Nelson’s political stock took a hit and he has since called for it to be scrapped.

Some Democrats have made it plain that they are firmly against the measure. By doing so, these Democrats are hoping to send a message to Pelosi and President Barack Obama: Don’t bother with me.

One thing is clear: Tension is rising in the House.

A skittish House Democrat lawmaker who voted no in November repeatedly declined to answer whether he is a yes or no this time around.

“You know where I am on this one. You know where I am on this one,” he said.

Asked if marking him as a “no” vote would be incorrect, the lawmaker paused, and then responded, “I haven’t seen any [legislative language] yet!”

Pressed if that meant he was “undecided,” the lawmaker answered, “No, don’t put that down either!”

Little over two weeks ago, freshman New York Democratic Rep. Michael McMahon told the Staten Island Advance that he didn’t “see anything” in the president’s revamped healthcare proposal “to have me come off my ‘no’ vote.”

But since then, his position has shifted somewhat.

Noting that the Democratic Caucus hadn’t seen the actual bill yet, McMahon said he “can’t say finally” how he will vote but “you know I didn’t vote for the health bill the first time.”

Asked if he was “undecided” or “leaning no,” McMahon joked, “Is there a place in between?”

Then he responded, “I’m leaning no.”

According to The Hill’s tracking of member positions, 35 Democrats say they are going to vote no or are likely to vote no. Another 73 are publicly undecided.

Of course, it is impossible to read the minds of legislators, and it is highly probable that some undecided Democrats have decided. For tactical and other reasons, they are deciding to keep their votes to themselves — and perhaps Democratic leaders.

Likewise, there are certainly some Democrats in the no/leaning no category who could be persuaded.

But not all of them.

Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), who voted no in November, has said he is an absolute firm no this time around. Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), one of the most conservative Democrats in the lower chamber, has repeatedly promised his constituents he will vote no. Similarly, there is no chance that Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) will vote yes. Davis represents a district that Obama won with 71 percent of the vote, but is running to win the governor’s mansion in a a state that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over 60 percent in the 2008 presidential race.

During the last week, The Hill conducted a survey of more than 100 Democratic members who are seen as possible defectors.

Some lawmakers’ offices were quick to respond.

On Monday, spokespeople for two committee chairmen — Armed Services Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — quickly responded that their bosses would not vote for the bill.

But many other press secretaries declined to comment or return phone calls.

More than a few politically vulnerable lawmakers, such as freshman Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), appear torn.

On Wednesday night, Pelosi cornered Perriello for an intense conversation on the House floor.

Asked about that conversation, Perriello walked away, telling The Hill that he “wouldn’t talk about healthcare.” Perriello, who is in a tossup race, voted yes last fall.

The enormous media attention on healthcare reform doesn’t make the members’ situations any easier.

Some members have expressed their views to hometown newspapers while others have kept mum. For example, Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), a no vote last November, has declined to talk to the Denver Post about her position.

The pressure will be most intense on the Democrats from the classes of 2006 and 2008. These members are the most vulnerable in the midterm elections and are considered more likely to be persuaded by Democratic leaders, including Obama.

A yes vote could help them climb the ladder in the Democratic Party. Yet, it could also be a liability in the elections.

Freshman Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), a GOP target who voted no last year, told, “I’m not afraid to cast a tough vote and I’m not afraid to stand up to leadership in doing so.”

McMahon noted that his colleagues have had a tough time taking a position on the anticipated vote because of confusion over the contents of the proposal and the process.

“We haven’t seen these final proposal from the White House with the CBO score, which is always a concern to us. And I think there’s also still a lot of confusion on the process. So, as soon as we have the final document with the CBO score and a roadmap to the process, then I think people will be able to respond,” McMahon explained.

A Democratic leadership aide attributed the anxiety to the healthcare reform fatigue, noting the issue has dominated the 111th Congress.

The Hill’s whip list can be accessed here

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