Democrats yet to decide on health-care bill bear the weight of Washington

By Sandhya Somashekhar and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A01

Rep. Jason Altmire has met with President Obama twice this month and received a phone call from Air Force One. Two planes circled his western Pennsylvania district, trailing banners urging him to vote against the health-care bill. And conservative "tea party" activists confronted him at his office, trying to force him to answer: "Are you for or against the bill?"

The pressure has been extreme over the past two weeks on Altmire and the few dozen House Democrats who say they still have not decided how they will vote on ambitious legislation designed to remake the nation's health-care system.

For many of the fence-sitters, the sticking point has been their concern that the bill could allow tax dollars to subsidize abortions. For others, it is the cost of implementing reform as the economy continues to founder. Virtually all face intense opposition at home and the possibility that November's elections could derail their political careers.

Unlike many of them, though, Altmire has defended his ambivalence to constituents and partisan talk show hosts alike.

"I have a district that on almost every issue is politically split, and this is the biggest hot-button issue you can possibly imagine," he said Wednesday from his Washington office. "It's uniquely personal to everybody. So we're in the position where we have a constituency that is weighing in in every possible way, and I think I have a responsibility to listen to everything they say."

Altmire isn't the only undecided House Democrat getting face time with Obama. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) had a lengthy meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday morning -- the first time he has had such an audience with a president in his 12 years in office.

"He understands well that the current system is unsustainable," said Baird, who came away with a positive impression of the president's knowledge of the health-care system.

Baird, who is retiring this year, said he has agonized over his decision. He was among the Democrats who broke with the party last fall to vote against the original House bill. He woke at 4 a.m. Wednesday to read the health-care legislation that the Senate approved on Christmas Eve.

The wavering lawmaker, however, said he stands by what he told Obama: He still needs to see the specifics of the new House bill, including a forthcoming analysis from the Congressional Budget Office.

Unlike Baird, Altmire does not have the luxury of making a decision without job security in mind. He was swept into office in 2006 during a particularly low moment for Republicans and was reelected in 2008, but his district backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president.

Fiscally conservative and antiabortion, Altmire was among 39 Democrats who voted no in the fall. Some conservatives, however, sounded the alarm when they sensed him vacillating recently. It earned him a top spot on the "must-call" list circulated by some in the tea-party movement, dozens of whom crammed into a Capitol Hill conference room for two hours last week.

The meeting was designed to convince him that "either he chooses to vote no or he chooses to get retired," said Mark Skoda, chairman of the Memphis Tea Party, who attended the meeting.

In a video posted on Skoda's Web site, attendees can be heard trying to force Altmire to take a side, sometimes interrupting him mid-comment. When asked flatly whether he supports or opposes the bill, he demurred, eliciting an angry chorus from the group. "I'm not running from the issue, I'm listening to my constituents," he shot back. "I would think that's why you elected me, to listen to my constituents."

He has said that many of the objectionable aspects of the legislation have been removed but that he remains concerned about cost. He, too, is waiting for the CBO analysis.

While he has no primary opponent so far, Republicans have recruited Mary Beth Buchanan, a former U.S. attorney, to run against him. She has already made health care an issue.

Meanwhile, protesters on both sides of the issue have made multiple appearances at his office in Aliquippa, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, over the past two weeks. And then there are the planes and their banners. One read "Tell Altmire to Vote No on Health Care," according to published reports. Another centered on abortion funding, Altmire said.

On Wednesday, four veterans wearing two-pointed garrison caps flipped through literature as they waited for an audience with the congressman in his tiny lobby on the third floor of the Cannon Building. They were there to talk about the legislative priorities of their organization, but Patrick Brown said he would be raising the issue of health care during his conversation.

"Before I left, I asked people what they wanted me to say," he said. "They all said the same thing: 'No on health care.' "

About an hour later, Mark Simon sat in the same lobby, scribbling in large block letters on a scrap of paper. Simon, a union employee, wanted to talk to his congressman in person about his fervent support for health-care reform but had to settle for a note.

"I have a daughter who has Crohn's disease," he said. While the family has health insurance now, she is 17 and will soon age out, he said. "I'm not going to just say, 'Well, kiddo, there's nothing we can do. Your life is ruined.' I had to come here and say something."

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