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Blue Dogs Bare Teeth at Health Bill Markup

By Alex Wayne and Jonathan Allen, CQ Staff

July 17, 2009 -- Moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats showed their potential influence on a health care overhaul before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joining Republicans Friday to adopt an amendment aimed at preventing the creation of duplicative government health programs.

The Blue Dogs, a 52-member coalition, are a closely watched group, as they have threatened to block approval of the House bill (HR 3200) unless it is modified to meet their concerns about its policies and cost. House Democratic leaders have been struggling to woo enough of them to assure passage once the bill goes to the floor.

The Energy and Commerce amendment, offered by John Sullivan, R-Okla., would require the Health and Human Services secretary to study whether any duplicative programs are created by the overhaul, and after reporting to Congress, unilaterally eliminate them. Most panel Democrats said they didn't object to a study of duplicative programs, but they wanted to be able to control whether the programs are eliminated.

Nonetheless, Sullivan's amendment was adopted 29–27, with support from seven Democrats, all but one of them Blue Dogs. Republicans applauded after the committee's clerk announced the tally.

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said he asked the Blue Dogs after the vote if they were trying to make a statement, and they told him no, they thought it was genuinely a meritorious amendment.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if the Blue Dogs join with the Republicans they can bring this bill down," Waxman said. But he doubts that will happen.

"I think that it would be such a mistake for any group of Democrats to bring down this legislation and give the president a defeat—especially those in marginal districts," he said.

"They are the ones who will pay a political price when voters get angry that Congress hasn't responded to their health care concerns."

Military Medics

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the committee unanimously adopted an amendment designed to help former military medics obtain jobs as civilian paramedics.

The measure, by Jane Harman, D-Calif., would authorize grants to states to set up programs to help military medics become emergency medical technicians. Harman said that unemployment among discharged veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is about 30 percent.

Democrats ruled out of order an amendment by Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, that would have capped non-economic damages—such as pain and suffering awards—in medical malpractice cases at $250,000. Democrats have not addressed the issue of medical malpractice in any of their overhaul proposals, to the chagrin of doctors and the GOP, who contend that the costs doctors incur defending themselves from frivolous suits are a major driver of increased medical spending.

Waxman said that Burgess' amendment fell under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee.

After Republicans complained they'd had little time to read a 75-page Democratic omnibus amendment, which gathered together numerous proposals from Democrats on the committee, Waxman agreed to postpone further consideration of the measure until Monday.

Two other House committees, Education and Labor and Ways and Means, completed markups Friday of their portions of the huge health care bill.

Not Just Blue Dogs

So far, four of the five Blue Dogs who have had a chance to pass judgment on the bill in Ways and Means and Education and Labor have voted against it.

Rep. Mike Thompson of California, a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a member of Ways and Means, is the only Blue Dog to support the measure in committee so far. The real committee-level showdown between Blue Dogs and liberals will be in the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has more Blue Dogs than the other panels.

But it's not just the Blue Dogs who are having trouble embracing the House bill.

Freshman Democratic Reps. Dina Titus of Nevada and Jared Polis of Colorado, neither of whom is a Blue Dog, voted against the measure in the marathon, 24-hour Education and Labor Committee markup.

And Polis led 21 House Democratic freshmen and one second-term lawmaker, the overwhelming majority of whom are not Blue Dogs, in writing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Thursday expressing concern about provisions that would pay for the health care expansion by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Titus, who signed the letter, cited those concerns in explaining her vote against the bill at the committee level.

"This was a difficult vote. There are positive aspects of this legislation, like ending the practice of denial based on pre-existing condition and making insurance portable. I know that families across Nevada are struggling due to the high cost of health care, but I have concerns regarding the tax portion of this legislation," Titus said.

"We are working hard to lift our economy out of this recession and to promote growth and job creation. Increasing taxes that can affect small businesses in my district will make it harder for them to be the engines of growth that pull us out of this recession and put people back to work," she added.

Blue Dog Reps. John Tanner of Tennessee, Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota and Ron Kind of Wisconsin voted against the health care bill at a Ways and Means markup, and fellow Blue Dog Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania did so in the Education and Labor Committee.

Leah Nylen contributed to this story.

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