Carney Takes Constituents’ Temperature

Posted August 25, 2009 at 10:25am

DICKSON CITY, Pa. — Rep. Christopher Carney (D-Pa.) came to the Eagle Hose Company No. 1 firehouse Monday night seeking, in part, some clarity from his constituents about how to proceed in the health care debate.

On that point, the more than 300 people who gathered inside seemed determined to disappoint.

Those who rose to speak were roughly split between supporters and opponents of reform, and comments were met equally with cheers and jeers.

The result — a spirited, respectful and ultimately inconclusive hour of debate — provided a snapshot of the late August state of play on health care. The raucous town halls that jarred lawmakers at the start of the month have largely given way to more tempered events.

For Democrats from swing districts facing a potentially career-defining vote, the shift has relieved some pressure and offered room to maneuver, but it also has complicated the task of taking the political pulse of their districts.

Carney said the event, the third of five he is to complete before the end of the August break, gave his constituents an important opportunity to address their elected Representative, even if he did not hear any concerns expressed Monday that he hadn’t heard before.

“What we hear are people that have very strongly held beliefs about things,— he said. “Some are based on fear, some are based on interpretation, some are based on misinformation, some are based on very good information. … Everybody is getting their information from different points of view, and it’s incumbent upon me and my staff to proceed from what we know as fact and take in what they have to say. And that at some point will help mold our decision.—

What that decision will be remains unclear. Carney emphasized throughout his Monday evening event that he wants a reform package that will bring more people into the system, cover pre-existing conditions and offer portable insurance.

He stayed undeclared on a public insurance option, one of the provisions that has emerged this summer as a flash point. Carney said the issue won’t be “make or break— for him and said its fate should be determined by the insurance industry.

“Convincing the insurance companies that expanding the risk pool to everybody helps lower the costs, creating more competition — that’s one of the possibilities,— he told one questioner. “Maybe a public option of some kind is necessary, maybe not. Once again, I’ll have to put it back on the insurance industry itself to figure out how they want to do this.—

The industry, of course, is steadfastly opposed to the creation of a public-sector competitor that would exist to rein in insurance costs — and private sector profits. But Carney said if the industry can be convinced to volunteer the reforms he is seeking, lawmakers could forgo creating the public insurance option.

Taking the temperature of the room after Monday’s session, Carney gave an edge among the speakers to those opposing the public plan. But typical of the wider debate, he added, “I’m not sure exactly if we did a head count who would be in favor of it and who would be opposed.—

Carney was on home turf at the Monday event — in Lackawanna County, which helped provide his margin of victory in his 2006 contest. In that race, Carney ousted Republican Don Sherwood, a four-term incumbent, after Sherwood acknowledged an extramarital affair with a 29-year-old woman who accused him of choking and punching her.

Carney won re-election last year with 56 percent of the vote.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the district by 54 percent in the presidential election, and Carney remains on unsteady ground. He is a top target for Republicans in 2010, and the National Republican Congressional Committee plans to roll out radio ads next week targeting him on health care, NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola said. The party has yet to zero in on a challenger but is eyeing state Sen. Lisa Baker and Dan Meuser, a wealthy businessman and also-ran from the 2008 Republican primary.

So it came as no surprise that Carney treaded carefully through the Monday session in the packed firehouse, taking pains at times to distance himself from national party leadership. He opened the session by noting, “As one of those Blue Dog Democrats, I was one of those people who told our party leadership we need to go back and talk to constituents about this, to hear from them, get their input, and have a discussion back and forth,— adding the effort helped forestall a House vote until after the August recess.

He drew applause for pointing out to a man who rose to speak against climate change legislation that he voted against the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in June. And he took a couple shots at the Obama White House. Carney told Suzanne Morgan of Dickson City that he agreed with her that the administration has created too many czars, a concern he said he has passed along to administration officials.

And he told a woman named Karen that while the Justice Department is justified in examining possible Bush-era interrogation abuses, he shared her sense that President Barack Obama reneged on his promise to move past those controversies. Carney, himself a former intelligence officer, later acknowledged to reporters that Obama should not be faulted for a decision made by Attorney General Eric Holder.

Throughout, Carney stayed level, smiling and nodding even as both foes and advocates of reform at times shouted into a microphone. Questioners were selected with a lottery system, though only about half of the 18 chosen actually had questions for the lawmaker. Others simply wanted to make their views known. “In terms of just pure democracy, that’s important to me, and it’s important to them as well,— Carney said afterward.

Amid the hubbub — and while remaining agnostic on the legislation itself, which he noted is still being developed — Carney gently made a case that the growth in health care costs is unsustainable and the system needs reform.

“I think I can go back and credibly say people do want pre-existing conditions covered and they do want transportability,— he said afterward, noting that calls coming into his offices are running 2-to-1 in favor of some kind of reform. “The question is how much, how far do we go with it, who benefits primarily, who pays. Those are the fundamental questions that need to be answered with any kind of policy change.—