Centrist Democrats lukewarm on Obama's new health plan

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Moderate congressional Democrats, a bloc that's crucial to the fate of President Barack Obama's renewed health care effort, offered only mild endorsements of his new plan Tuesday, while warning that it faces a difficult legislative path.

"It's very constructive," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said of the blueprint that Obama released Monday. "But how this is done is not clear to me at this moment."

The president's self-described "opening bid," in anticipation of his bipartisan health care summit Thursday, combines elements of separate bills that the Senate and the House of Representatives passed last year with only a single Republican vote

The estimated $950 billion, 10-year package would require most people to buy coverage, would provide insurance subsidies for lower-income families and would impose new taxes on higher incomes and more expensive insurance policies.

Because of Obama's pending summit, virtually no Democrats wanted to criticize the president's effort publicly, but it was clear that once the summit's over, the White House faces political and substantive problems in getting a comprehensive package approved.

Many centrist Democrats face re-election in November in conservative states and districts, and Republicans are eagerly trying to use Democrats' health care positions against them.

"Everybody is looking at the polls that show on the one hand, folks want something done," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. It's hard to get constituents to agree on specifics, however, and "that makes health care a hard sell," he said.

The most common responses from moderates Tuesday about Obama's blueprint were similar to that of Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., who voted against the Democratic plan in November. "It's better than the House bill," said Altmire, who's a member of the conservative, 54-member House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, "but we still need to see more cost containment."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also was guarded.

"I am not going to make comments on specific proposals — and I just saw this on Monday — until I have an opportunity to digest it." Thirty-nine House Democrats voted against the party's health care plan on final passage in November.

Republicans pounced on the Democrats' new plan. The National Republican Trust PAC, an independent Republican group, plans to begin three days of radio ads Wednesday in Washington urging the Blue Dogs to distance themselves from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or reap the consequences from voters in November.

House Republicans huddled Tuesday, and afterward they were adamant that the president's plan is an expensive, big-government mess.

"House Republicans will continue to oppose any effort to use this so-called 'summit' as a media preamble to forcing through ObamaCare 2.0," said House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was equally resolute. "The American people thought the debate on this approach to reform was over," he said on the Senate floor. "Yet here we are, once again, being told by the White House that we have to consider the same health care bills that caused such a backlash across the country in December."

Sixty votes will be needed to cut off debate in the Senate, where Democrats now control 59 seats. The option of using a rule that requires only 51 votes for passage has a highly uncertain future, since it would involve complex parliamentary maneuvering.

More vexing to Democratic moderates, who've long been concerned about the exploding federal debt, was Obama's cost projection.

"I haven't seen a good cost estimate," Nelson said, "and anytime you don't have that you have to be concerned."

There's no independent verification of the president's $950 billion estimate, and the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan agency that's regarded as Washington's fiscal referee, won't provide one anytime soon.

"Preparing a cost estimate requires very detailed specifications of numerous provisions, and the materials that were released ... do not provide sufficient detail ...," CBO Director Doug Elmendorf said on his blog.

"Even if such detail were provided," he said, "analyzing the proposal would be a time-consuming process that could not be completed this week."

As a result, centrists often echoed the thoughts of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

"This is a step in the right direction," he said, "but we need to find out more information."

ON THE WEB

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