As House Democrats approach an expected vote today on health care reform legislation, candidates to succeed U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon have been criticizing the bill and Gordon's last-minute decision to support it after having earlier opposed it.
The measure seeks to extend coverage to 32 million uninsured people and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the proposal would cost $940 billion over 10 years.
"For the sake of our country and for our children's and grandchildren's futures, for the last time I'm calling on Congressman Gordon to stand up to Speaker Pelosi and vote 'no' on this health care bill," said State Sen. Jim Tracy of Shelbyville, a Republican candidate for the Sixth District U.S. House seat, on Saturday. "Tennesseans are sick and tired of government being shoved down our throats. When I'm elected to Congress, I will stand with the people of Tennessee and not with the bureaucrats in Washington."
Earlier in the week, retired Maj. Gen. Dave Evans of Wartrace, another Republican candidate, issued an open letter to Gordon opposing the legislation:
"The whole 'Obamacare' ordeal has caused Americans to completely lose respect for all current members of Congress," wrote Evans. "The back room deals to gain support from wavering legislators are embarrassing. The procedural trickery now being considered, the so called 'Slaughter Solution,' to move this bill forward is dishonorable and a disgrace to the principles upon which our government was founded.
Evans called the bill "one of the greatest threats to our American way of life in decades."
The "Slaughter solution" is a reference to a procedural maneuver supported by U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., chair of the House Rules Committee, which will allow the health care bill to be voted on indirectly, without the usual reconciliation process between House and Senate versions. The procedure, also known as "deem and pass," has been used by Congress in the past, although critics say it has never been used to pass such a sweeping and high-profile piece of legislation.
Gordon is one of a handful of Democratic legislators who had previously opposed the legislation but have changed their positions in the last week. Gordon said Thursday he changed his mind because the proposed changes will be "better for Middle Tennessee than the status quo."
Changes made to the legislation last week benefit Tennessee, although Gordon denies those changes were the reason for his position. The bill now includes an additional $99 million in 2012 and 2013 for Tennessee hospitals.
Gordon has fought for the funds for years to bring the state's aid up to par with the rest of the country, spokeswoman Emily Phelps said. The previous funding formula did not compensate Tennessee for giving out more than its share of uncompensated hospital care. According to a report in the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the discrepancy goes back to when the state first passed TennCare in 1993. TennCare was supposed to be run in such a way that hospitals would not have to give any uncompensated care, but it hasn't worked out that way. Two years ago, the federal government began giving extra funding to Tennessee to compensate hospitals for that care, but that funding was scheduled to run out this year. The additonal $99 million will make sure that hospitals continue to receive the funding.
Phelps said the change had nothing to do with Gordon's announcement Thursday that he will vote for the final health legislation after opposing an earlier version in November.
State Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, another candidate for the Gordon seat, held a rally Friday outside Gordon's Gallatin office to criticize Gordon's position change. "We need to send Bart Gordon a message and make sure he knows that even though he's retiring, this seat doesn't belong to him, it belongs to us." She attempted to deliver a petition but the office was closed with a sign saying it would reopen on Monday.
George Erdel of Murfreesboro, who says he is a conservative Democratic candidate for the seat, was just as critical. In a press conference Thursday on the state capitol steps in Nashville, Erdel said most southern Democrats have parted company with the national Democratic leadership on issues like health care, but remain loyal to the label "Democrat."
They do not like to see the leadership in the house and Senate become so focused on one issue to the detriment of all others," said Erdel. "Tennessee's Sixth District is hurting right now more from a loss of jobs than they are from the health care issue." Erdel said he has written to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressing his views on the issue.
"This process corrupts and prostitutes the system," said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, pleading with the Rules Committee head, Rep. Louise Slaughter, to allow separate votes on the underlying Senate bill and the fixes.
Slaughter, D-N.Y., chastised Barton, a GOP leader on health care, and said his party had "opted out" of co-operating on the legislation. "We have to get on with it," she said.
Democratic leaders and Obama focused last-minute lobbying efforts on two groups of Democrats: 37 who voted against an earlier bill in the House and 40 who voted for it only after first making sure it would include strict abortion limits that now have been modified.
Leaders worked into Friday night attempting to resolve the dispute over abortion, and Saturday morning they were increasingly confident it would not scuttle the bill.
The vote count seemed to be breaking in Obama's favor.
An abortion foe, Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., said Saturday he would support the bill. In addition, Reps. John Boccieri of Ohio, Scott Murphy of New York and Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas of Florida become the latest Democrats to say they would vote "yes" after voting against an earlier version that passed last year, bringing the number of switches in favor of the bill to seven, including Gordon.
On the other side of the ledger, Reps. Michael Arcuri of New York and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts became the first Democratic former supporters to announce their intention to oppose the bill. Lynch said he did so despite a telephoned appeal from Vicki Kennedy, whose late husband, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., championed health care for decades.
Rep. Anh Cao of Louisiana, the only Republican to support the earlier measure, has announced his opposition, too.
The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.
Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade.
For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and they would face penalties if they refused. Billions of dollars would be set aside for subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year afford the cost. The legislation also provides for an expansion of Medicaid that would give government-paid health care to millions of the poor.