Politics & Government

Kentucky Blue Dog opposed as health care bill nears House passage

WASHINGTON — Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, was expected to vote against the biggest overhaul of the nation's health care system in more than four decades — an Obama administration-backed measure that appeared likely to pass Sunday evening.

Chandler voted against a similar measure in November, a move that stunned some Democrats who expected the lawmaker — who early in his tenure was given a plum position on the powerful Appropriations Committee and is seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party — to back party leadership. Late last year, when President Barack Obama made the rounds on Capitol Hill to drum up support for the health care vote and asked Chandler, "Can you be with me on this?" the Kentucky lawmaker responded, "Mister President, I have some concerns."

This time around the courting wasn't so personal, and instead Chandler spoke with several administration staffers about his position.

"Congressman Chandler's position on the bill remains the same. He expects to vote against the legislation," Jennifer Krimm, a Chandler spokeswoman, said last week.

Chandler remained steadfast in his opposition to the sweeping health care bill despite aggressive lobbying by the Democratic leadership of his fiscally conservative colleagues. Rep, John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, is the only member of the Kentucky delegation expected to vote for the measure.

As the debate began Sunday, Democrats were still having trouble convincing a lot of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., decided Sunday to vote "no" because "I am unconvinced the long-term trend of rising health care costs is adequately addressed."

Like many members of Congress, Chandler's office was targeted by strident phone calls and protests from both sides of the debate.

House leaders were aiming for a final vote by 10 p.m. on the $940 billion package that will change the way most Americans deal with their insurers, doctors and other health care providers.

If approved by the House, the legislation will still need Senate approval. The Senate plans to consider the bill this week.

Democrats are closer than ever to making the most sweeping health care changes since Medicare was created 45 years ago. Under the new plan, most consumers would be required to have coverage by 2014, and most employers would have to offer it.

Within a year, insurers would be barred from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions, imposing lifetime limits on coverage and dropping people from coverage when they get sick.

Liberals are upset that the bill contains no government-run health insurance program, or "public option," while conservatives see the bill as too laden with special giveaways. The bill got a crucial boost Sunday afternoon as a group of anti-abortion Democrats got assurances from Obama that federal abortion policy won't change.

Among the things the bill changes: A Medicare payroll tax increase of 0.9 percentage points for earnings of more than $200,000 a year for single filers and $250,000 for joint filers. In addition, such earners would pay 3.8 percent on dividend, interest and other unearned income, starting in 2013.

The bill also provides more help with insurance premiums for lower- and middle-income consumers and expands Medicaid aid to states.

(David Lightman and William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)