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Ross Is Blue Dogs’ Bulldog

He warned them.

Months ago, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), chairman of the Blue Dogs’ health care task force, told House leaders and chairmen they’d better include Blue Dogs in the writing of their health care bill. But that didn’t happen.

Now, Ross has become the rallying point for a massive revolt against the leadership health care plan and may be the biggest obstacle to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) oft-stated desire to pass it by the August recess.

“I think the leadership has misread this one,— he said. “This is not a midnight surprise. We expressed our concerns three months ago.—

The five-term Member with the 1950s hair and deep voice never wanted to be in this position.

“One of the biggest reasons I ran for Congress was because I wanted to reform health care,— he said.

“My drive to want to fix health care and my passion on health care issues really goes back to owning a family pharmacy and seeing so many people on a fixed income or little to no income,— Ross said. “I’d see so many of them that couldn’t afford to take it properly and as a result would wind up 16 miles down the road at the hospital in Hope.—

Yes, that Hope — the birthplace of Bill Clinton.

Ross got his start in politics driving Clinton as he sought to win back the governorship he lost after one term in 1980, when folks thought he had gotten too big for his britches.

“I was 20 and he must have been 34 and already an ex-governor, and I ended up as his driver,— Ross said. “It was Bill Clinton and me in a Chevy Citation, a one-car motorcade traveling the back roads of Arkansas asking people to give him a second chance.—

Ross said the experience helped inspire him to go into public service. “He taught me how politics can still be good, can still be noble and people can run for the right reasons,— he said.

Ross won election to the state Senate at age 29, then won a hard-fought campaign against a four-term Republican appropriator to win his House seat a decade later, in 2000.

[IMGCAP(1)]Ross, who hails from Prescott, a two-stoplight town of 3,000, said the health care system is failing.

“We lost the county-owned hospital in my home county in 1995, the hospital my mom worked at as a nurse for much of her life,— Ross said. “So we don’t even have a hospital. And 20 years ago we had six doctors [in town]. Today we have three, two of whom are well over retirement age, with no prospect for new doctors moving in and locating there.

“That’s not just a reflection of Prescott, Ark. It’s reflective of rural Arkansas and rural America.—

Ross blames regional disparities in Medicare payment rates for the problem, which is the main reason he’s insisting that a new public health insurance plan isn’t tied to those rates.

“If you are on Medicare in a rural area today, you are likely to wait three months until you can even see a doctor, and now you are going to add tens of millions to that waiting list?— Ross asked.

Ross also is tapping into a growing frustration among rank-and-file Members.

“I think between the financial crisis, the auto bailout, the omnibus … the stimulus bill, the energy bill, I think it’s reached a point where not only the Blue Dogs are saying, Let’s slow down here.’ The people back home want us to stop the spending, they want us to have time to read these bills, they want us to have time to debate and understand these bills, and they don’t see that happening.—

Leadership doesn’t yet to seem to get it, Ross said.

“I think they underestimated the Blue Dogs on this. They are dug in. They’re bowed up.’ They’ve all gotten an earful back home.

“We’re more united than we’ve ever been, and so it’s not as easy as inviting one Member in after the next and finding out what their pet project is and helping them with their pet project for their vote. This is much bigger than that.—

Ross has stood up to leadership before, voting last month against the cap-and-trade energy plan that Pelosi sees as her legacy project. But this time is different.

“For philosophical, for political and other reasons, there were some people who wanted to be against the energy bill. They wanted to be against cap-and-trade, because they thought that was the wrong approach,— he said. “I don’t know anyone that’s against health care reform.—

But a plan that fails to cut massive costs or fix regional health problems won’t cut it, Ross said.

Ross’ Blue Dog crew is already making its mark. Six Blue Dogs and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) voted Friday to support a Republican amendment that would authorize the Health and Human Services secretary to eliminate duplicative programs. The amendment passed 29-27 over the objections of Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Ross’ leadership has earned him kudos from his fellow Blue Dogs.

“He’s a bulldog,— said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the Blue Dogs with Ross in the last Congress.

“Mike Ross is very brave, and he is in touch with his folks in Arkansas,— Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. “Everybody in the room knows more about the 4th district of Arkansas than we would ever want to.—

“He’s doing a good job, and he’s right,— said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a Blue Dog. “When you’re right, you get a lot of support. Mike has told the Speaker he wants health care reform, but there need to be changes. So far the message isn’t getting through, for whatever reason. I don’t know where they’re coming from on this.—

Non-Blue Dogs say Ross’ demands for lowering long-term health care costs are resonating.

“He’s expressing a huge sentiment shared by many in our Caucus,— said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), a non-Blue Dog who is also working on amendments intended to cut spending in the bill.

“We’re trying to save the bill and do what the president says we need, which is to control costs.—

Ross, meanwhile, doesn’t sound like a guy ready to back down anytime soon.

“When I’m invited in to meet with the Speaker or the president,— he said, “I go into those meetings thinking that I don’t need to come around to their opinion — they need to come around.—