Paul Barton in Washington had a late-afternoon interview with U.S. Rep. Mike Ross on his pivotal role in slowing the progress of President Obama's health legislation. He defended his action as being in the best interests of his mostly rural constitutents and he said they "get it."
Read on the jump.
UPDATE: Brummett provides more friendly coverage of Ross' obstructionism.
Ross' posture is simple to explain. Until he supports universal coverage -- which he has so far failed to do -- he's telling more than one in 5 of voters in his district to go to hell. It's actually much worse. Many people with nominal insurance are woefully underinsured and are going bankrupt by the thousands because of greedy health care providers, the ones for whom Ross is lobying for more money while claiming he's fighting for cost cuts.
By Paul Barton
WASHINGTON – Rep. Mike Ross strongly denied Friday he was acting contrary to the interests of his constituents by trying to slow down House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s health care reform bill.
Ross, head of health task force of the Blue Dog Democrats, a fiscally conservative caucus, said many “progressives” and “liberal” Democrats have quietly thanked him for trying to slow down the process, he said in a late-afternoon telephone interview with Arkansas Times.
Ross, a major figure in headlines coming out of Congress this week, said he is by no means trying to “kill health care reform” but just make sure its cost doesn’t overwhelm a federal budget already deeply in the red. He and other Blue Dogs have threatened to keep legislation from emerging from the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week unless it is shaped more to their liking.
About 45 million to 50 million Americans lack health insurance of any kind.
As for his south Arkansas, 4th District constituents? “They get it,” Ross said. “They want us to slow down and get it right and actually have time to read the bills we’re voting on.”
Ross said his days are now covered up with health-care reform meetings, such as regular talks with California Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of Energy and Commerce, to Pelosi, the director of the Congressional Budget Office and the head of the Office of Management and Budget. He also continues to talk to Pelosi. Overall, he said, the party leadership is beginning to realize its vision of health care reform will not pass.
He and about five other Blue Dogs met with President Obama at the White House around 6 p.m. Monday for about 45 minutes.
“I’m jumping from meeting to meeting. Does that sound like somebody trying to kill health care reform?"
The key to reform, he said, is not only to deliver a deficit-neutral bill but one that helps limit overall health spending to the rate of inflation, instead of twice the rate.Unless that is accomplished, he said, “there is going to not going to be health insurance for anybody.”
As Energy and Commerce continues to mark up the bill, Ross said, the Blue Dogs are preparing to offer as many as two dozen amendments.
One of their specific ideas making the bill more affordable? “We want to squeeze every ounce of waste out of the current system,” he said. Obama himself, Ross said, has identified that as a major route for paying for reform as well.
Another of their ideas, the Blue Dog said, is to lower the subsidies provided to families to acquire health insurance. Currently, he said, the main House bill would subsidize families with incomes at 400 percent of the poverty level or about $88,000. Lowering that subsidy to just 300 percent of poverty, or about $66,000, “would save billions” as well as take care of nearly all his 4th District constituents.
As for a public option, Ross said the Blue Dogs want to “take on the insurance companies” by threatening them with a public option if the cross certain “triggers,” such as continuing to exclude or penalize Americans with pre-existing conditions.
“We want to take on the insurance companies more than others in our party,” he said.
But for a public option to work, Ross added, rural doctors are going to have to receive higher reimbursement than they now get under Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly.
Has Ross’s tough stance on the issue, and the tension between him and Pelosi and Waxman, exposed the Arkansas representative to any political risk?
Hal Bass, political analyst at Ouachita Baptist University, doubts it. “I don’t see where Pelosi has a lot of clout with Arkansas voters,” he said, but adding, “There is always the danger of overplaying your hand.”
Other political observers were less confident the Blue Dogs can get away with slowing down health care reform. “They could be putting themselves in real political jeopardy,” said Bruce Buchanan, government professor at the University of Texas. Most of the electorate, he said, “is still with Obama on this.”
Even Bass said there is a possibility Ross’s stance could come back to haunt him if he runs for a statewide office.
Mark Mellman, a prominent Democrat consultant in Washington, declined to comment on Ross particularly, but said, “The Democrats know they have to deliver on this.”