Swing-State Democrats Could Doom Healthcare Plan

Tuesday, 16 Mar 2010 03:00 PM

By Matt Towery

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By and large, the pundit class has it that momentum now favors passage of a national healthcare program.

There's a fly in the ointment, however: Too many of the Senate Democrats needed to pass such legislation hail from states where, even if people tepidly endorse the concept of healthcare reform, that support breaks down when ways of actually paying for reform are considered.

So ultimate passage of any bill is problematic.

Take the swing state of Florida. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is a moderate Democrat. Our recent InsiderAdvantage survey of Florida shows a state equally divided on the issue, so Nelson conceivably could vote for a healthcare bill. His problem is to figure out what to support in the funding of the bill. The state's senior population is dead-set against any more cuts in Medicare benefits. And those seniors aren't wild about the reductions proposed for the Medicare Advantage program.

But other alternatives put forth in Washington, such as a tax on sodas and sweet drinks, or even a tax on financial transactions, such as the sale of stocks or other equities, get low marks from the voters, too. Signing on to almost any of the proposed ways of paying the healthcare piper probably would be more politically fatal to a senator than voting for the reform bill itself.

In North Carolina, another presidential swing state, Sen. Kay Hagan's approval ratings have plummeted since her election last year. She easily could seal her eventual political fate this year. When she runs again in five years, she could be sunk by charges that her support for a healthcare bill triggered any number of finance mechanisms that ultimately might be needed to pay for it.

The list of moderate Democrats in similar straits is not short.

And then there's the idea of charging a fee to Americans who don't sign up for healthcare under whatever reform bill that might emerge. Polling suggests that any lawmaker who supports that neat little twist might be doing the political equivalent of swallowing a time-release poison pill.

Most amazing is that Congress continues to fret feverishly on a potentially unworkable and even disastrous healthcare bill while so many other pressing issues go unaddressed. The suddenly resurgent stock market may be misleading Washington into thinking our economy at last has passed "Go."

Tell that to the people in most states, such as Nelson's Florida. Voters there continue to say the recession has hurt them. A majority says Florida's economy is either as bad as or worse than it was six months ago.

My bet is that the oh-so-critical-vote in the Senate Finance Committee for a healthcare reform bill by the lone Republican to do so, Olympia Snowe of Maine, will melt like a snow cone in July before this whole reform movement plays out. Snowe tied her vote to enough caveats to allow her plenty of room to back away from whatever the final bill entails.

Recently, Newsweek extolled the virtues of Vice President Joe Biden. (Biden does seem to be one of the more likeable people in the administration.) The magazine noted that Biden had cautioned President Obama early on that it might not be wise to take on healthcare reform in his first year in office. That's likely because Biden's deep institutional knowledge of the Senate told him that, no matter how excited the Democratically controlled House might get over a healthcare reform effort, his more moderate colleagues in the Senate would be given pause by being placed in the ultimate political pickle.

As of late this week, the pickle jar was still full of moderate Democratic senators. They continue to praise some form of national healthcare bill, but one by one, they're all coming to the realization that erasing the potential perils and pitfalls of such legislation may not be possible. They're right. The plan is too ambitious.

No matter how the pundits try to tell us that a significant bill will pass this year, I have trouble buying it. Too many polls in too many states — states represented by moderate senators — say that while the notion of healthcare reform is marginally palatable, the details turn the stomach.

Matt Towery is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2009 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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