Politics & Government

Dems' offer tepid response on health care plan

WASHINGTON - Moderate congressional Democrats, a bloc that's crucial to the fate of President Barack Obama's renewed health care effort, offered only mild endorsements of his new plan Tuesday, while warning that it faces a difficult legislative path.

"It's very constructive," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said of the blueprint that Obama released Monday. "But how this is done is not clear to me at this moment."

The president's self-described "opening bid," in anticipation of his bipartisan health care summit Thursday, combines elements of separate bills that the Senate and the House of Representatives passed last year with only a single Republican vote.

The estimated $950 billion, 10-year package would require most people to buy coverage, would provide insurance subsidies for lower-income families and would impose new taxes on higher incomes and more expensive insurance policies.

Because of Obama's pending summit, virtually no Democrats wanted to criticize the president's effort publicly, but it was clear that once the summit's over, the White House faces political and substantive problems in getting a comprehensive package approved.

Many centrist Democrats face re-election in November in conservative states and districts, and Republicans are eagerly trying to use Democrats' health care positions against them.

"Everybody is looking at the polls that show, on the one hand, folks want something done," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. It's hard to get constituents to agree on specifics, however, and "that makes health care a hard sell," he said.

The most common responses from moderates Tuesday about Obama's blueprint were similar to that of Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., who voted against the Democratic plan in November. "It's better than the House bill," said Altmire, who's a member of the conservative, 54-member House Democratic Blue Dog Coalition. "But we still need to see more cost containment."

Thirty-nine House Democrats voted against the party's health care plan on final passage in November.

Republicans pounced on the Democrats' new plan.

The National Republican Trust PAC, an independent Republican group, plans to begin three days of radio ads today in Washington urging the Blue Dogs to distance themselves from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., or reap the consequences from voters in November.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said, "The American people thought the debate on this approach to reform was over."