Congress’s Blue Dog Democrats Slow Health-Care Reform

Congresss Blue Dog Democrats Slow Health-Care Reform

“Got a lot of farms in your district?” In Washington, Representative Dennis Moore, a six-term Democrat, fields that question all the time. People see that he’s from Kansas and they jump to certain conclusions. But Moore’s district is USDA-prime suburbia, more John Updike than L. Frank Baum, mile after mile of trim lawns, Panera Breads, Best Buys and carpooling parents. “What we grow,” Moore likes to answer, “is a lot of small business.”

And this helps explain why Moore is now saying, in his laconic Kansas drawl, “Slow down!” to the leaders of his party as they push ahead with a $1 trillion–plus overhaul of the nation’s health-care system. Already this year, Moore has supported a huge spending package to stimulate the economy and a bill to cap carbon emissions. That’s an aggressive agenda for a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district. As he looks toward 2010, the last thing Moore needs is a revolt of small-business owners. Yet they are among the constituencies targeted to pony up for expanded health coverage through new payroll taxes and a surtax on high incomes.

Moore is not alone in his worries. Pressed by a widespread revolt among moderate Democrats over the potential cost of health care reform, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced on Thursday that he would not meet President Obama’s target of passing legislation by early August. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California backed away from the idea of cancelling the August recess. Obama tried his best to stoke a sense of urgency with a publicity campaign that included a televised press conference Wednesday evening. But caution prevailed over the orator’s usual magic.

Now the president’s deadline is more vague. “By the end of this year,” Obama said after Reid’s announcement, adding, “I want it done by this fall.” But in Washington there is considerable worry that a month-long recess in the company of constituents worried about trillion-dollar deficits could sap whatever momentum remains for sweeping reform. Obama warned legislators not to lose their steel. “Sometimes delays in Washington occur when people just don’t want to do anything that they think might be controversial. You know what That’s not how America has made progress in the past.”

Moderates began stomping furiously on the brakes almost as soon as the legislation appeared to pick up speed. Some are freshmen from Western states, like Jared Polis of Colorado and Dina Titus of Nevada; their victories in 2008, part of a possible regional shift in favor of the Democrats, could be erased next year if polls continue to turn against new taxes and mammoth spending plans.

Others are veteran members of the so-called Blue Dog Coalition, which consists of Democrats from less-than-liberal districts. Seven of the eight Blue Dogs on the crucial House Energy and Commerce Committee have threatened to block health-care legislation unless it puts a lid on costs. Resistance strengthened after the head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office testified that the current House proposal would push costs up, not down, and would add some $240 billion to the federal deficit by 2019. That, in turn, has some Senators pushing back against the White House’s early-August goal for passing health-care reform. With dissent spreading through his team’s locker room, coach Obama was forced into pep-talk mode. “Now is not the time to slow down,” he urged on July 17, “and now is certainly not the time to lose heart.” For Moore, it’s not a matter of heart. He strongly favors reform. “The American people have spoken, and they clearly want a better health-care system,” he says. “If we don’t act this year, costs for everyone are going to rise.” The problem is runaway spending. “Voters want us to get some kind of a lid on costs,” he continues. “They aren’t looking for a huge tax increase. Small businesses are struggling to make ends meet as it is.”

Most members of Congress don’t have to worry much about voters from the other party because most districts are designed to favor either liberals or conservatives. But some mixed districts remain, and the Kansas Third is one of them. Moore’s survival depends on winning votes from both sides.

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