Lawmakers go hard line on health care

Angry voters have captured all the attention at town hall meetings across the country this summer, but it's the passionate response from lawmakers that will affect the health care debate when Congress returns.

Dozens of lawmakers used the meetings in August to stake out positions on health care — making promises on everything from abortion to the deficit — that could leave little room for compromise as they close in on a final bill.

"I think we're all best served, if we want to get health care, by not drawing bright lines in the sand," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. "All of us are going to have to be prepared to give and take."

That hasn't stopped some from naming their terms:

• Many Democrats, from Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, told voters they would vote against a bill that adds to the deficit. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., said he wouldn't back a bill if it "increases the deficit by a nickel."

• Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who supports a government-backed insurance program known as the public plan, repeatedly told voters attending a telephone town hall that the provision must be included for her to support a health care bill.

• Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, said he would not vote for a bill that would "force government-run health care on anyone."

Even Connolly, who said he supports changing health care but has concerns about the proposals, issued an ultimatum last month when he promised a group of seniors he would vote against a bill if it in "any way, shape or form" harms Medicare.

Connolly said his comments were intended to ease fears about what's included in the legislation. He said he believes the bills in their current form would not harm Medicare, because the cuts proposed by President Obama target only wasteful spending.

Making votes conditional on certain provisions could complicate the effort to convince a majority of Democrats — let alone Republicans — to support the bill. Similar declarations have haunted lawmakers in past elections.

"It makes compromises more difficult because politicians feel an urge to back up their talk," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, who noted that the comments are often immortalized on the Internet.

"YouTube is the enemy of compromise," he said.

Lawmakers are set to return to Washington on Tuesday to resume debate over health care after a bruising August recess in which voters opposed to the health care legislation drafted by the Democrats turned out in large numbers. Pitney said some lawmakers were forced to make promises by crowds that wouldn't accept "political speak."

The meetings were less touchy for Republicans, who have vowed to oppose versions of health care legislation pending in the House and Senate.

"American citizens want to maintain their ability to choose their doctor," said Republican House Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. "They don't want government rationing."

On the left, several Democrats have been equally adamant that a government insurance plan must be included. Woolsey and 59 other Democrats sent a letter to the Obama administration threatening that House passage of a health care bill depends on it.

"The people who elected Barack Obama… voted for change," Woolsey said in an interview. "They didn't vote to tweak health insurance."