The New York Times

45 Centrist Democrats Protest Secrecy Of Health Care Talks

The New York Times — Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Op-Ed Columnist


WASHINGTON — Forty-five House Democrats in the party's moderate-to-conservative wing have protested the secretive process by which party leaders in their chamber are developing legislation to remake the health care system.

The lawmakers, members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said they were "increasingly troubled" by their exclusion from the bill-writing process.

They expressed their concerns in a letter delivered Monday to three House committee chairmen writing the bill, which House leaders hope to pass this summer.

Representative Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat who is chairman of the coalition's health task force, said: "We don't need a select group of members of Congress or staff members writing this legislation. We don't want a briefing on the bill after it's written. We want to help write it."

Mr. Ross and eight other lawmakers who signed the letter are on the committees responsible for writing the legislation.

Centrist Democrats said they fully endorsed President Obama's goal of guaranteeing access to health insurance and health care for all. But, they said, they are concerned about the cost of the legislation, which could easily top $1 trillion over 10 years. And they want to be sure that the role of any new government-sponsored insurance program, expected to be a centerpiece of the bill, is carefully delineated.

Many Blue Dogs come from usually Republican districts or swing districts and see their stance on health care as vital to their political survival. By contrast, the committee chairmen writing the House bill have safe Democratic seats.

The Blue Dogs said the policy-making process in the House compared unfavorably with the approach in the Senate, where two committees have held open forums and the chairman of the Finance Committee, a Democrat, is working with the panel's senior Republican.

In the letter, Blue Dogs representing districts in states as varied as Maine, California, Pennsylvania and Alabama lamented that "our contributions, to date, have been limited." They praised "the collaborative approach being taken by our Senate colleagues."

The committee chairmen writing the House bill are Representatives Henry A. Waxman and George Miller, both of California, and Charles B. Rangel of New York.

Asked about the letter, Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for Mr. Waxman, said he had met with some members of the Blue Dog Coalition and welcomed their suggestions. When she was asked why, then, they were complaining, she said, "That's more of a question for the Blue Dogs than for us."

Representative Parker Griffith, a retired physician from Alabama, was among the letter's signers. Mr. Griffith said he needed to see details of the proposal for a new public insurance plan before knowing if he could support it.

Another coalition member, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, did not sign the letter, but expressed similar concerns.

"Especially in the House," Mr. Cooper said, "there's too much of this attitude that if it's bipartisan, that just means you didn't negotiate hard enough. I hear that a lot from folks. They are almost looking for ways to eliminate Republican support."

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