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Split over health care bill

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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Democratic officials portrayed the Republican Party's squabble in New York's special House election as an intolerant right-wing purge of liberal Republicans. In fact, Dede Scozzafava was driven from the race by falling polls and voters who said she sounded and voted like a Democrat, and in the end, she endorsed the Democratic candidate.

In the age of President Obama and McCain-Feingold campaign limits, voters are still free to support or reject whom they wish - especially those who all too often pose as members of one party but vote with the other.

But these same Democratic officials, who had lectured Republicans on party etiquette, were as quiet as the tomb when their own rank and file attacked 39 House Democrats who dared to vote against Nancy Pelosi's $1.2 trillion health care bill. These Democrats who voted their conscience were called turncoats, traitors and worse.

In a tribe that does not tolerate any dissent from the party line, the gang of 39 had committed an unpardonable and unforgivable sin: They voted no on the centerpiece of Mr. Obama's domestic agenda. When they returned home to gauge their district's reaction, they were greeted with a vendetta of e-mails, phone calls and crowds of protesters.

Heading the protest pack was the leader of the party's leftist Netroots army, fiery blogger Markos Moulitsas whose Daily Kos Web site is widely read by millions of devoted foot soldiers. Kos does not treat ideological deviants with forbearance. Indeed, he urges his followers to boycott any and all contributions to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee which contributes heavily to its House incumbents.

The DCCC is interested in only one thing, Kos said, "incumbent retention, and they're [necessarily] issue-agnostic. They'll be dumping millions into defending these seats. Instead, give to those elected officials who best reflect your values."

The DCCC isn't about to pull back its support for Democrats who voted no on the health care bill because most of these lawmakers come from more conservative-leaning districts that are among their party's most vulnerable seats in 2010.

But mounting attacks on these Democrats, from their party's left, sends a threatening signal that they could lose much of their base in next year's elections, improving the Republican Party's chances of picking up a number of seats that they lost in recent elections.

In many districts, the attacks have been fierce. In central Florida, first-term Rep. Suzanne M. Kosmas, whose re-election is rated a "tossup" at best, was called "a traitor." In North Carolina, freshman Rep. Larry Kissell's vote enraged liberal bloggers who had supported him. One of them, Chris Bowers, a blogger on OpenLeft.com, said Mr. Kissell's campaign donors should demand their money back.

In Utah, liberal Democratic state Sen. Scott McCoy said he was thinking about challenging five-term Rep. Jim Matheson in next year's party primary, then apparently backed away from his threat.

Mr. Matheson, who has a reputation for voting with Republicans, says he opposed the bill on moral and fiscal grounds. A "one-size-fits-all nationally run plan that doesn't acknowledge the different health demographics in the states isn't the answer," he said the day before he voted against the bill.

Even veteran Democrats were not immune from attacks. The day after the House vote that narrowly sent the bill to the Senate by a five-vote margin, a crowd of protesters gathered outside the Jefferson City district office of 17-term Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. The demonstration, mounted by Grass Roots Organizing, a liberal advocacy group, had some protesters arrive in a rented Cadillac filled with uninsured Missourians to remind voters of the gold-plated congressional health insurance plan lawmakers like Mr. Skelton enjoyed. "We were trying to make the point that we are providing them with some great public health care choices. How can they then say that we can't have what they've got?" protest organizer Robin Acree told me. "I find that appalling."

In New Mexico, Rep. Harry Teague, whose shaky re-election prospects are also threatened, came under attack from local labor unions, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In a statement just before he cast his no vote, Mr. Teague said he wanted to support a bill that guaranteed access to affordable health insurance and reduced health care costs to shrink the budget deficit. "Unfortunately, the current bill before Congress falls short of that, and I am left with no choice but to vote against it," he said.

These and other House Democrats, who could not stomach their party's massively costly health care bill, had to deal with the same untenable situation that wavering Senate Democrats now face. Several recent polls show the country is split right down the middle on the Democrats' pending plans in Congress and Democratic senators like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and perhaps half a dozen others from conservative states are weighing the political consequences of their vote.

The irony is that a "no" vote will only enrage their party's liberal base vote, dividing their party even more than it already is in the health care battle that has handed the Republicans its strongest weapon in the midterm sweepstakes to come.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

About the Author
Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is the chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, the author of five books and a nationally syndicated columnist. His twice-weekly United Feature Syndicate column appears in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Times. He received the Warren Brookes Award For Excellence In Journalism in 1995 and in that same year was the host and co-writer of ...

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