'Very angry' Dem sounds alarm

January 15, 2010

In an emotional talk with other Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee this week, North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy said the protracted debate is hurting him so badly back home that he might as well retire if it drags on much longer.


A Democrat who attended the Ways and Means session said Pomeroy was “very angry” as he spoke about the delay. “Other folks were upset, but he was the maddest by far.”


“I believe Congress needs to resolve fairly quickly this protracted health care debate,” Pomeroy told POLITICO on Thursday. “We have a number of other issues that haven’t been able to get enough attention, because health care is taking up all the floor time, all of the attention. We need to move on.”


Pomeroy is hardly alone.


Rank-and-file members throughout the House Democratic Caucus are anxious to get past the health care debate — whatever the outcome — so that they can turn their attention to less polarizing issues that could help them win reelection in November.


“A lot of people have that concern,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire, a Democrat who voted against the first House bill but may back the finished product. “We’ve been talking about this thing for a long time, and we’re at the finish line now.”


“I would prefer to take this vote soon,” added first-year Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio). “We’ve got to get our focus back to creating jobs, especially back in Ohio, where I feel we’ve suffered disproportionately. So I would prefer to see this come very quickly.”


“Obviously, sooner is better,” said Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus, another first-year Democrat who’s locked in a tight race with the Republican he beat in 2008. “We also want to get this right. The question is if we can get it right and move quickly.”


In a speech to House Democrats on Thursday evening, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the drawn-out debate has taken a toll on his party. He told the members that he knew “some of you have gotten beaten up at home.”


“Believe me, I know how big a lift this has been,” Obama said. “I see the polls. … I catch the occasional blog poster, cable clip that breathlessly declares what something means for a political party, without really talking about what it means for a country.


“But I also know what happens once we get this done, once we sign this … bill into law: The American people will suddenly learn that this bill does things they like and doesn’t do things people have been trying to say it does. The worst fears will prove groundless.”

The White House seemed to move a little closer to that day Thursday, with labor leaders saying they’d struck a deal with the administration over the taxation of so-called Cadillac heath insurance policies. But members of the House and Senate will need to sign off on that deal — and close the gaps that still exist between the bill the House passed in November and the one the Senate passed on Christmas Eve.


And not all Democrats are pushing for a quick resolution; some are fearful that the White House will use the impatience of members like Pomeroy as an excuse to push the House to rubber-stamp the Senate bill.


But Pomeroy has clearly lost patience with the slog, a long legislative ordeal that has seen deadlines repeatedly pushed back or missed and that has allowed Republicans to seize as much on the process — closed-door meetings, special deals for reluctant senators — as on the final product.


Pomeroy “is not the only one feeling a lot of pressure at home,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), another member of the Ways and Means Committee. “Even though I’m in a heavily Democratic district, the reality is this: My district is suffering. And the sooner I can start concentrating on the economy and creating jobs for the American people, so they can start coming to Las Vegas so that my economy will recover, the better off I’m gonna be, and the better off my district is gonna be.”


Pomeroy, one of the Democratic leadership’s final converts on the House health care bill, declined to discuss his remarks to his Ways and Means colleagues. He noted, however, that he’s already announced that he plans to run for reelection in November — itself a victory for House Democrats who feared that he’d run instead for the Senate seat now held by retiring Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).


But as a Democratic incumbent in a red state, Pomeroy faces political pressure from all sides — and he believes the extended debate over health care is making matters worse. The liberal blogosphere beat him up for dragging his feet on the bill — even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) challenged him at one point in front of the rest of the caucus — and now he has a well-regarded Republican opponent.


Pomeroy argues that the slow-motion endgame is diverting attention away from other issues that Congress should be addressing, including the economy and job growth. He is also frustrated that the legislation cuts more money from skilled nursing facilities than he’d like.


Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said that Obama and Democratic leaders hope to have key parts of a compromise bill in place by this weekend so that they can be scored by the Congressional Budget Office. But other senior Democrats cautioned that the weekend was just a goal, not a firm deadline.
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