Deeply Divided House Democrats Return to Work -- and the Same Set of Problems

By Paul Kane, Ben Pershing and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

After a nearly 40-day recess that was anything but restful, House Democrats are returning to work Tuesday still unsettled over pending health-care legislation and sure only that the people have had their say.

They are in almost the exact position they were in when they left the Capitol in late July. Conservatives are still leery of supporting a government-funded, or public, insurance option. Freshman lawmakers from suburban districts remain fearful of increasing taxes for their wealthy constituents to pay for the new measure and await alternatives from moderate Senate Democrats. And progressives, who are demanding the most far-reaching reform since the Great Depression, are still threatening to bring down the legislation if it does not contain a robust version of the public option.

In the lead-up to President Obama's critical Wednesday night address to a joint session of Congress, interviews with a cross section of about 15 House Democrats and half a dozen aides show that there is still overwhelming support for some overhaul of the health-care system. But the caucus remains deeply divided over the details of the more than 1,000-page measure and now faces a public that is more skeptical than when House committees began drafting the plan two months ago.

"We knew a lot of work still needed to be done, so no, not a lot has changed," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (S.D.), a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 52 Democrats from moderate-to-conservative districts.

House Democrats are the canaries in the coal mine for Obama's most important domestic policy issue. As originally planned, the House was already to have passed its health-care legislation, with a far-reaching public option for insurance, based on Democratic votes, as Republicans have lined up in almost unanimous opposition to the House version. Despite their large majority, Democrats faced internal opposition in late July and agreed to delay the vote until late September at the behest of dozens of Blue Dogs and other Democrats worried about the public's view of the legislation.

House Democrats are still expected to take the first step on the legislation, assuming that the frenzy of early August -- with the continual image on cable news of Democrats at town hall meetings with angry voters opposed to the proposal -- has not solidified opposition within their own ranks.

Party leaders contend that the time spent at home gave the public unprecedented input on the legislation, allaying concerns of some Democrats who feared casting a vote before facing their constituents in August.

Democratic and Republican aides said the past 40 days brought an unparalleled level of public participation at forums, with some lawmakers reporting to their leaders that 1,000 people showed up at events last month, compared with the 30 people who attended town hall meetings in the same location during previous August breaks. By late last week, House Democrats said that since Aug. 1, their members had held 1,029 public forums, teleconferences with constituents or health-care gatherings in their districts.

"I think this month can be viewed as participatory democracy, members going out and talking to the people," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "Nobody can say we haven't taken the time to look" at the legislation.

But House Republicans, who held hundreds of their own town hall meetings that drew more than 100,000 voters, according to preliminary estimates, viewed the break as a galvanizing moment for opposition to the Democratic legislation. "I heard people saying, 'Look, we need health-care reform. We need to do something to lower the cost of health insurance for families and small businesses and lower the cost of health care,' " said Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the third-ranking GOP leader. "But I also heard people say that they don't want a government-run plan that is going to lead to a government takeover of health care."

Clearly, the recess did not go as scripted for House Democrats.

As the 5 1/2 -week break began July 31, Democrats handed out seven-inch-long pocket cards for their members to carry like political shields. The cards listed popular parts of the legislation to be emphasized at town hall meetings, including banning insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions and prohibiting them from dropping or declining to renew coverage for people who become sick.

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