In North Carolina, one Democrat wavers on health care

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 17, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Depending on the vote of undecided Rep. Bob Etheridge, half of North Carolina's Democrats could join congressional Republicans this weekend in opposing the final passage of health care overhaul legislation.

Already, the state's three most conservative Democrats are expected to vote no — just as they did in November when the health bill first came up for a vote.

Reps. Heath Shuler of Waynesville, Larry Kissell of Biscoe and Mike McIntyre of Lumberton say the bill doesn't go far enough to bring down health costs and would cost taxpayers too much.

Etheridge, a Lillington Democrat, supported the Democrats' bill in November. At the time, he waited until the last minute to signal his vote. This time around, he says he's undecided again.

The indecision comes in the waning days of Democratic leaders' push for votes. President Barack Obama has been calling some wavering Democrats, and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina is meeting with caucus groups to push the bill.

Jared Bernstein, economic policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, said in an interview that lawmakers are choosing between keeping the status quo and passing needed — if imperfect — reform.

"These are not easy votes, I grant you that," Bernstein said. "But this is a historic vote." Etheridge is considered a moderate in his party, and he votes with leadership nearly 98 percent of the time, according to a Washington Post database of congressional votes.

Wednesday afternoon, he spent five minutes on the House floor reading aloud health-care horror stories from his home district.

"It's time to put health insurance back on the side of the folks back home," Etheridge said. "When North Carolina families are hurting, doing nothing really isn't an option for me."

Etheridge has faced strong pressure in the 2nd congressional district, a largely rural and suburban district that dips into southeast Raleigh but also curls through the fast-developing farmlands around the eastern and southern edges of the region.

A recent survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm in Raleigh, found that 53 percent of voters in Etheridge's district oppose the health care overhaul, while 37 percent support it.

In the past week, members of the so-called "tea party" movement have held two rallies outside Etheridge's Raleigh and Lillington offices, urging him to vote no. Supporters of the legislation outnumbered the opposition at the Lillington protest.

North Carolina's other lawmakers have fallen in line with their parties. Supporters include Reps. Mel Watt, G.K. Butterfield, Brad Miller and David Price. Price, who represents Chapel Hill, Durham and Cary, held a news conference Monday to announce his support.

All North Carolina Republicans are opposed, with many of them echoing GOP talking points that Congress should "start over" with health reform.

"Take it off the table," said Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican.

Shuler, Kissell and McIntyre all said the bill would cost too much.

"Health reform is needed, but this bill is too expensive," McIntyre said in an interview Wednesday. He said the bill would create a new federal bureaucracy at the cost of nearly a trillion dollars, while not doing enough to stop the skyrocketing costs of health insurance premiums.

Families USA, a non-partisan health advocacy organization in Washington, estimates that health insurance premiums in North Carolina rose nearly 100 percent in the past decade.

Shuler and McIntyre belong to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats that often weighs in on budget-related bills. They've been targeted by organizations on both sides of the issue.

Callers to Shuler's office Wednesday routinely encountered busy signals or a voicemail message. McIntyre said his office has received thousands of calls and letters, many of them from across the country.

McIntyre said he would rather scrap the current bill, concentrate on jobs recovery and then focus on small goals in health care.

Those could include developing community health centers, improving electronic medical records and creating partnerships between nursing schools and rural communities. He also wants to focus on improving the two government programs that now exist, Medicaid and Medicare.

"They're almost broke," McIntyre said. "My goodness, we've got to honor the commitments that are already there."

Shuler's office didn't return calls for comment Wednesday. His spokeswoman told a local newspaper in Shuler's district this week that the congressman is undecided, but Shuler is widely expected to vote "no" again, as he did in November.

Wednesday afternoon, his Facebook page was flooded with comments from people both in support of and opposed to the health bill.

Kissell, a freshman and a former high school civics teacher, said in a statement Wednesday that he will vote "no" because he doesn't like how the bill is supposed to be paid for. A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for more specific information about that statement.

Bernstein, the White House adviser, disagreed with the criticism about the bill's costs.

"According to the Congressional Budget Office, the health care reform measures passed by the House and Senate would reduce the budget deficit by $100 billion the first 10 years and by a trillion dollars in the second 10 years," Bernstein said.

"That is something any Blue Dog should take very much to heart," he said.

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