- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

Voters angry about Democrats’ health care overhaul plans have managed to wrest commitments in August from a handful of lawmakers to oppose the reform bills and solidified the opposition of others — raising new doubts about President Obama’s hopes to pass a bill this year.

Rep. Tom Perriello, a freshman Democrat from Virginia, told a town hall that he’s against the bill as it’s written. Rep. Travis W. Childers of Mississippi told the editorial board of his local newspaper, the Daily Journal, that he “will not support it, as it’s constituted today.” Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi got a standing ovation at a town hall when he reiterated his long-held opposition to the bill.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas this week said she opposes the public option in its current form because it’s too expensive. She is the second Senate Democrat to publicly oppose the provision.

“Sen. Lincoln’s statement [Tuesday] is indicative of the fact that the Senate Finance Committee is moving closer to a product that is not likely to include a public option,” her spokesman told The Washington Times later.

The moderate Democrats, many of whom were reluctant to take positions before they left Washington, say their concerns now center around the overall cost of the bill — about $1 trillion in the House — or uneasiness about a government role in health care. Most of them have couched their statements to say they oppose the reform bills as currently written, leaving the door cracked open if the bills are altered as widely expected.

“Most [Americans] agree that our health care system needs reform,” Mr. Childers said last month, echoing opposition to the House bill as written. “It is how we go about reforming this system that is central to the current health care debate.”

While the opposition doesn’t look good for the House bill’s prospects, Democrats warn that it’s far too early to call health care reform a loss.

In the House, only a handful of Democrats firmly oppose the bill, and those who are against it are still open to changes in the legislation, a Democratic aide said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who is trying to draft a bipartisan bill in his own chamber, has said he expects to pass a bill, whether it’s bipartisan or a Democrat-only alternative.

“When I talk with folks at coffee shops or diners, health care seems to be the biggest issue on most folks minds,” he said in a statement to The Times. “Its clear that almost everyone agrees we must reform our system.”

House Democrats, who have hosted about 850 health care events with constituents over the August recess, took the town halls as opportunities to consider constructive changes to the legislation, particularly to lower the $1 trillion price tag.

“What they gained from the last four or five weeks will help that process, not hurt it,” said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’re going to be stronger for it because the final product will reflect the input our folks have received.”

The legislation passed three different House committees and now needs to be combined, allowing minor to substantive changes to take place. The bill would then face a vote on the full House floor. On the Senate side, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a bill in July, but that chamber is waiting on the Finance Committee to craft a portion of the legislation.

In many cases, the Democrats who have cemented their positions over the break attended town-hall meetings overrun with opposition, forcing members to stand face to face with constituents. In some instances, those voters forced promises of support or opposition, a stand lawmakers sometimes can avoid having to take while they’re in Washington. Still, other lawmakers chose not to host town-hall meetings at all, or converted their face-to-face sessions to over-the-phone conferences to avoid starring in a YouTube video sensation.

Many Republicans, meanwhile, have used the recess to solidify their opposition to reform plans already on the table.

In particular, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee’s negotiating team, reserved his most blistering criticism of the House bill until the August recess, telling a town hall that the plan would lead to socialized medicine and government control of health care decisions.

Mr. Grassley, who faces re-election next year, has raised Democrats’ ire when he said he is unlikely to vote for the committee’s compromise plan, if it comes up with one, unless it can generate substantial Republican support.

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, said Tuesday that he was surprised by the level of intensity he saw from the public in August. Senate Republicans hosted about 100 public events during the month, he said.

“The American people believe we’ve headed in the wrong direction on health care and believe we should come back to Washington next week and start over,” he said.

Other Republicans have drawn on key opposition points to the reform plans, some of which have been knocked down by fact-checking groups.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted an online message that the House bill would create “death panels.”

Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that because of his age — 59 — in Canada or Britain, “if I broke my hip, I couldn’t get it replaced.”

When given the statistic by the paper — about two-thirds of hip replacements in Canada and Britain are performed on patients older than 65 — he said he had relied on expert testimony before the House, but won’t use the inaccurate age cutoff any longer.

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