Undecided California lawmakers get an earful on health bill

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Public and private pressure is building on Central California lawmakers and others who say they're undecided on the big health care bill. That's the price of wait-and-see.

E-mails are piling up. Telephone lines are crashing. Republicans and labor unions are running competing ads. Fox News and the Drudge Report are retailing GOP rumors and some constituents on all sides of the issue are getting impatient.

"It seems to me they want to be the number one holdout," said Carolyn Jensen, a 69-year-old Modesto, Calif., resident who called Rep. Dennis Cardoza's office this week. "I don't understand why he wouldn't want to vote for this."

Jensen is a mother of three, as well as the chief care provider for her own mother.

She supports the Democrats' $940 billion health care package, and felt motivated this week to urge Cardoza, a Democrat, to do the same. Conveying the message proved complicated, though, as Capitol Hill office lines have been jammed.

As many as 40,000 telephone calls an hour have swamped the House of Representatives' switchboard, coinciding with talk show host Rush Limbaugh's pleas and posting of telephone numbers starting Tuesday. Legislators say the outpouring exceeds anything they've seen on other issues.

"This is orders of magnitude more," Cardoza said Thursday.

Sidewalks and airwaves, too, have been congested. The National Republican Congressional Committee this week began airing cable television ads targeting Cardoza. The Service Employees International Union has been running San Joaquin Valley ads promoting the bill, and a small group of bill supporters demonstrated Thursday outside of Democratic Rep. Jim Costa's Fresno office.

As of Thursday, the two central California colleagues remained publicly uncommitted. Both said they were awaiting a chance to see the bill's details.

"What's going to move me to make my final decision is to read the final language," Cardoza said. "This is a case of trust but verify."

Costa added that he, too, must "see the language" before making his final decision. Tellingly, though, both he and Cardoza emphatically praised a Congressional Budget Office assessment released Thursday that estimated the bill could cut the federal deficit by $138 billion over the next 10 years.

"It's a good score," Costa said.

The 2,310-page bill, and accompanying 1,345-page committee report, was posted online mid-afternoon Thursday. The House expects to vote on the package Sunday.

Democratic leaders need 216 votes to pass the bill, because there are several House vacancies. No Republican is expected to support it. Depending upon who is counting, Democrats as of Thursday afternoon had momentum but still were roughly eight votes short of victory.

In this tense environment, many conversations occur at once.

Cardoza, for instance, said he expects to be talking again to President Barack Obama before he votes. Costa on Thursday convened several conference calls to discuss the bill a final time with health care professionals and others in his congressional district.

"I'm going to listen to them," Costa said.

Some tactics resemble flash-bang grenades, loud and distracting but not very lethal.

Many of the calls flooding Costa's and Cardoza's offices come from callers who don't live in the San Joaquin Valley. For House members, out-of-district callers count far, far less than constituents.

California Republicans are peddling the story line that Cardoza and Costa will support the bill in exchange for the Interior Department's announcement earlier this week that San Joaquin Valley irrigation deliveries would be increased.

"I'm guessing those events are closely linked," Fox News Channel talker Sean Hannity declared Wednesday night, while the screen text asked beneath a picture of Costa and Cardoza, "Were (California) congressmen bribed with water provision?"

Bribery is a specific crime. It's a felony, distinct from the traditional horse trading and favor-granting that lubricates legislation. Outside of its rhetoric, Fox presented no evidence of criminal behavior.

Costa and Cardoza, in any event, discounted any connection between their health care votes and the Interior Department's having advanced its planned water delivery announcement by two weeks. Costa noted that California lawmakers had asked the Interior Department to speed up its water decisions in mid-February.

"This is the season of not telling the truth," Cardoza said.

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