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Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a Dec. 18 Page One article about Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) and health-care reform called the reform "badly needed" in the mainly rural district that Kissell represents. The wording incorrectly implied that The Washington Post was making a judgment on the need for such reform in the 8th Congressional District in North Carolina.

Democratic congressman from North Carolina angers supporters by voting against health-care bill

Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) voted against the health-care bill.
Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.) voted against the health-care bill. (Jim R. Bounds For The Washington Post)

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By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

KANNAPOLIS, N.C. -- To voters in this hard-luck town where stable factory jobs and the health care that came with them have long since disappeared, change looked good a year ago. Change came not only from President Obama, who narrowly won this swing state, but also from a millworker-turned-high school civics teacher who had no political experience but ran on a promise to bring a progressive everyman's sensibility to Congress.

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Fueled by the liberal grass roots, Democrat Larry Kissell stitched together a winning message about jobs and kitchen-table concerns, including rising health insurance costs, and he rode the Obama wave to unseat a five-term GOP congressman by 11 percentage points. Democrats here rejoiced. Finally, they were sending to Washington a representative to fight for their interests -- and to help enact the new president's agenda.

Now, one year later, the euphoria has given way to second thoughts at best and outright rebellion at worst. Kissell is siding with Republicans on Obama's top domestic priority, fixing the nation's health insurance system, and his "no" vote has enraged fellow Democrats.

As they plunge into next year's midterm contests, Republicans and Democrats are making dicey calculations with their health-care votes, each weighing the demands of their party's base against the political climates of their districts. With Republicans opposing the bill in lock step, the White House needs a fragile coalition of Democrats to enact reform, but it is vulnerable Democrats like Kissell who form the greatest obstacle.

And that is why Democrats here are steaming.

"People want change, and when someone puts their foot in the door to kill the whole thing, that's what has them riled up," said Michael Lawson, an African American leader of the state Democratic Party and one of Kissell's constituents. "It's almost like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,' but Mr. Smith turned out to be somebody that wasn't Mr. Smith."

A Medicare promise

When the House passed the Affordable Health Care for America Act on Nov. 7, Kissell was among 39 Democrats who voted no. Like Kissell, many of them are endangered freshmen from traditionally conservative districts, trying to appeal to conservatives and independents.

Still, Kissell's vote is perplexing considering the need for health-care reform here in the largely rural 8th Congressional District. The district, at the heart of the state's weakened textile industry, stretches from Charlotte to Kannapolis to Fayetteville and was shedding manufacturing jobs even before the recession. Now, about 20 percent of residents younger than 65 have no health insurance -- among the highest rates in the nation -- and the bill would provide coverage to about 85,000 who are uninsured, according to a congressional analysis of census data.

Kissell said that he sides with his party on the vast majority of votes and supports expanding coverage, but that he voted against the bill because it would have cut about $399 million from Medicare to find savings. He said he was not willing to renege on his campaign promise never to cut Medicare funding.

"My line in the sand is Medicare," Kissell said in an interview. "One of the things that's missing in people's trust factor is people keeping their word. Whether I win or lose, I've got to look at myself in the mirror the next day, and a word that's important to me is integrity."

Like most members of Congress, he has been deluged with calls, e-mails and letters from constituents, which his office said ran about even through August -- when opponents of the health-care effort became more organized nationwide. Since then, his office said, correspondence from constituents has come in about 2 to 1 against the legislation.

What Kissell considers a principled stand over Medicare, some of his constituents view as a classic Washington betrayal. And his vote threatens to fray the coalition that propelled him to victory. Many Democrats here gave him money and knocked on doors for him because they saw in him a break with the partisanship of Robin Hayes, his Republican predecessor.


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