Blue Dogs Spend Recess Listening

Members Happy Not to Be Defending Health Vote

Posted August 4, 2009 at 6:21pm

Blue Dog Democrats are happy to be spending their August listening to constituents talk about health care reform — and not have to be defending a vote on it.

Of all the deals fiscally conservative Blue Dogs secured in the epic Energy and Commerce Committee markup last week, the most critical may have been to delay the floor vote until September. Until the moderate bloc threatened to bring the bill down several weeks ago, House leaders had been hellbent on holding a health care vote before recess.

Indeed, when four Blue Dogs on Energy and Commerce cut their deal with House leaders and the White House, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), the chief Blue Dog negotiator, highlighted the vote timing above all the other concessions. In a press release, Ross pronounced it “the key to this agreement.—

Now, as Blue Dogs — many considered to be the Caucus’ most vulnerable — get in their critical face time with voters, they are framing the period not as a time to proselytize, but to listen.

“This is a time for them to get input from their constituents, which is why they wanted time over the break before voting,— said one Blue Dog aide, who said Members are best positioned to know what their districts want to hear. “They are the ones who’ve been elected from these districts.—

A Democratic leadership aide, meanwhile, said that failing to get the bill passed before the recess is proving to have a very valuable silver lining.

“That was the beauty of not having a floor vote — everyone can go home and say there are still opportunities to change this bill,— the aide said. And Members can sell key pieces of insurance reform, regardless of where they are from — whether it be an end to exclusions because of pre-existing conditions, caps on out-of-pocket expenses, or a prohibition on insurance companies putting a cap on how much they will spend if someone gets sick.

“Who can’t go into a town hall and sell that? … The biggest selling point for the middle class is they are worried their health care will get too expensive or they are one bad situation from not having insurance,— the leadership aide added.

And because the House hasn’t yet passed a bill, Democrats can tailor their message to their audience. “Members can go out and say, Here’s all the good stuff in our bill, [but] this I don’t like and I’m going to try and change that,’— the aide said.

Freshman Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.), a Blue Dog, does not sit on any of the three committees that passed versions of the health care legislation, but he has serious concerns about what the House has produced so far, spokesman Clark Pettig said. So Nye won’t be trying to sell the package over the break to the large military population in his coastal Virginia district — and he will not be toting the pocket card that the leadership staff developed for House Democrats to help pitch it.

Neither will Nye be holding town-hall-style meetings, events that have already proved inviting targets for rowdy protesters. Instead, Pettig said the Virginia Democrat will convene more targeted sessions for seniors, veterans and provider groups to hear about their health care priorities and to express his own.

Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), the Blue Dog’s whip, likewise doesn’t have any town halls planned and likely won’t be reading from leadership talking points, either, spokesman Doug Abrahms said.

“He’s never had a town hall,— said Abrahms, who also said Shuler would be talking to smaller groups. Shuler is worried the package emerging in the House won’t do enough to control health care costs and is concerned it will harm small businesses, despite the Blue Dog-negotiated compromise that would expand an exemption for such outfits from an employer mandate.

Of course, attacks from the right aren’t all Blue Dogs have to worry about.

The liberal group MoveOn.org is launching radio ads targeting the three Blue Dogs who voted against the health bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee — Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.), Jim Matheson (D-Utah) and Charlie Melancon (D-La.) — starting today, and others are under pressure from other liberal organizations and bloggers.

Of course, that may be just one other reason why the rest of the 52-Member bloc is happy not to have voted yet.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.