Dogging Obama’s Plan

Posted July 30, 2009, at 10:42 p.m.

The Congressional Blue Dog caucus, a group of 52 House Democrats committed to fiscal responsibility which includes Maine’s 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, has emerged as a key player in the debate over health care reform. As laudable as the Blue Dogs’ goals are, many critics rightly worry that if they poke enough holes in the reform plan, they would kill it.

As Congress prepares for its August recess, the Blue Dogs on the House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed to let the reform bill move forward, with changes aimed at helping small businesses and reducing the plan’s cost. The final vote, expected in the fall, may also hinge on Blue Dog support.

Ironically, the Blue Dogs formed as a group of conservative Democrats in the wake of the GOP seizing control of both houses of Congress in 1994 after another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, tried but failed to pass comprehensive health care reform.

Rep. Michaud remains optimistic that a plan will pass, and asserts the Blue Dogs may save the president and the party by refining the bill. On Tuesday, he said liberal Democrats have thanked members of the caucus for slowing the march to a vote. Rep. Michaud was willing for Congress to stay in session through August, but believes a fall passage is more likely.

“This is going to be transformational,” he said. “Two or three weeks to do it is just unrealistic.” In particular, Rep. Michaud is concerned about details in the bill that would adversely affect Maine. For example, a provision in the bill as it now exists could cost Maine nursing homes more than $300 million in federal funds, he said. Also of concern are the low reimbursement rates Maine doctors get from Medicare; Maine is second to last among states in this category, Rep. Michaud said.

Monday evening, the full Democratic caucus met with the staff of the three committees working on health care and members were able to ask questions about the bill. “It was extremely helpful,” he said. Rather than blame the Blue Dogs for weakening the hopes for passage, Rep. Michaud points the finger at the Democratic leadership. Instead of passing the energy bill, he thinks leadership should have tackled health care first.

“I don’t want to see a divided caucus,” he said, and continued to defend a more deliberate process. “I feel strongly that if you have a good document, you can do a better job defending it.”

When he was in the Maine Legislature, Rep. Michaud worked to pass a first-in-the-nation bill that allowed the state to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for better prescription drug prices. The Legislature was crawling with lobbyists, he recalls, and the pressure against passage was great, but by carefully crafting a bill and addressing any weak points, the work was accomplished, he said. The same can happen in Congress.

But if reform fails because of those 52 votes, more progressive Democrats may be kicking the Blue Dogs for years to come.

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