Democratic senator Lincoln feels pressure in health-care debate

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When the Senate begins floor debate on a health-care reform package this week, the outcome is almost certain to rest on decisions made by a handful of moderate Democrats.

None of those Democrats is feeling the heat as intensely as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), who has become emblematic of the improbable distance that health-care reform has traveled, and how far it still must go before becoming law.

Her vote and that of two other Democrats expressing serious reservations about the legislation -- Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mary Landrieu (La.) -- will determine whether it will garner the 60 needed to break an all-but-certain Republican filibuster.

There are 60 members of the Democratic caucus but one, independent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), has threatened to join a GOP filibuster if the final bill contains a government insurance plan, or "public option." With only a single Republican, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, even considering backing the final product on the floor, the trio of Democratic centrists could make or break the reform effort.

And of those three, only Lincoln must face voters next year.

Hundreds of thousands of Lincoln's constituents are low-income and lack insurance, the very kind of voters expected to benefit under the Senate bill. Lincoln, a second-term senator, helped write some of the legislation's key provisions as a member of the Finance Committee, and her sometimes uncomfortable role near the center of the debate could cost her in culturally conservative Arkansas. Despite the potential benefits for many in her state, polls show her support weakening, and constituents are expressing doubts about the proposed overhaul.

The low-profile centrist is being pressed by both sides. Democratic activists are incensed that she has turned against the public option, an idea she once supported. Republicans are casting her cautious approach to the health-care debate in starkly political terms, saying that she is unwilling to put local interests above those of a president who lost the state by a resounding 20 percentage points.

"I want to be a check and balance on Barack Obama's extreme agenda," state Sen. Gilbert Baker, a front-runner for the GOP nomination, told reporters last week.

An Arkansas Poll published Nov. 5 found that Lincoln's job-approval rating had dropped to 43 percent, from 54 percent a year ago. At least seven Republicans are vying to challenge her bid for a third term; Baker raised $500,000 in his first month as a candidate. And if she does not embrace the party line on the health issue, Lincoln could also face a Democratic primary challenger, along with a Green Party opponent in the general election.

"In some ways, there's not a good vote on this," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D), Arkansas's junior senator, who coasted to reelection last year. "You're going to have detractors on either side, no matter what you do. So I think in the end you have to what you think is right. And I think that's what we're all going to have to do."

The first test for Lincoln could come as early as Friday, when the Senate will vote on whether to bring the bill to the floor. Lincoln told party leaders she would study the final product before committing either way.

"What people want is for us to take our time and not rush into something that we haven't thought completely through," she said, shrugging off the pressure as she hurried back to her office after a Senate vote last week.

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