- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

For weeks, all eyes have been focused on the “gang of six.” Now, President Obama has set his sights on a group of 17.

The 17 moderate Democrats in the Senate are leery of the high price tag of health care reform and its impact on the federal deficit, and are starting to wield influence as Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders search for a bill palatable to both the public and Congress.

“I told the president that the primary focus for moderates is getting costs under control for middle-class families and small business, and passing fiscally responsible reform that reduces the federal deficit over time,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, after Mr. Obama met with the lawmakers Thursday.

In recent weeks, cost has challenged the public option as the most divisive issue in the health care reform debate. The plan being formulated in the Senate is expected to come in at $900 billion and the House bills are expected to reach $1 trillion. Lawmakers have also raised questions about how much the plans would bring down health care costs for the average American.

“We need to stop the rising costs that are bankrupting working families, small businesses and our economy,” Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat, said. “These reforms must be fiscally responsible and not add to the deficit.”

At 17, the group’s size could make it a heavyweight if members decide to join forces. So far, aides to the lawmakers say, there are no plans for that. Even so, the individuals’ votes will be important to getting the 60 required for the bill’s passage.

If Democrats turn to reconciliation, a procedural move that would cut off a Republican filibuster and enable the bill to pass with 51 votes, the 17 votes could become even more important.

The group, officially called the Senate Moderate Dems Working Group, came together in March under the leadership of Mr. Bayh and Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Thomas R. Carper of Connecticut.

Mr. Bayh, when the group was formed, said the members will not speak with a unified voice, but would work together to pursue “pragmatic, fiscally sustainable policies” on issues such as deficit containment, health care reform, housing, education, energy and climate change.

On Thursday, the lawmakers were briefed by Peter R. Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, who “walked them through the details” of the president’s proposal, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

“I think some people are surprised that the president is going to pay for a proposal, which is something that hasn’t happened in this town in a long, long time,” he said.

One White House official who had knowledge of the discussions said a chief concern among these Democratic senators is the plan’s impact on the deficit.

“Of course, every senator is concerned about doing this in a fiscally responsible way, but [this group] wanted to hear how the president planned to make sure it is deficit-neutral,” the official said. “Their concern was cost, and wanting to know that this isn’t going to add to the deficit.”

While many in the group have voiced concern about the financial aspects of the legislation, a handful have also said they’re worried about the proposed plan to establish a government health insurance option. Others, such as Mr. Bennet, have supported the public option.

Jim Fagin, a spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, who also attended the meeting, said the Nebraska Democrat’s views on the current bill have not changed much since Mr. Obama’s speech and his subsequent meeting with the president.

“He just doesn’t have enough details yet. He’s just not going to support anything at this point,” Mr. Fagin said. “He’s being a good juror on this. He doesn’t make a decision until all of the evidence is in.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire described the White House meeting as “upbeat and thoughtful.”

“We discussed, in detail, the cost of health care reform - both the cost of inaction for families and businesses, and the cost to our nation in terms of long-term spending,” she said in a statement. “I remain hopeful that we can work together - Democrats and Republicans alike - to achieve this important goal.”

The lawmakers aren’t the only ones concerned about cost.

A July poll from Rasmussen Reports found that 61 percent of voters nationwide cite cost as the biggest health care problem today, followed by universal coverage and quality of care.

In the House, fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats had similar concerns about the cost of the legislation and its long-term impact on the federal deficit, stalling the legislation until it was changed.

The number of moderate Democrats in the Senate has grown substantially in the last two election cycles, and therefore many of the group’s members are in their first or second term. Moderates are becoming particularly important in both the House and the Senate, as liberal Democrats threaten to pull support if the public option is removed and conservatives say they will vote against any public option.

The group’s members include veterans such as Mr. Nelson and Sens. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, as well as freshmen such as Mark Warner of Virginia, Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, is a member, as is former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

• Kara Rowland and Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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