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Election Doesn’t Faze Moderates

House and Senate Democratic moderates insisted Wednesday that Republican victories in Tuesday’s off-year election would not influence their votes on health care reform.

That’s because many Democratic centrists — particularly those representing conservative states and districts — were already nervous about how their health care vote might be received at home. And most were unwilling to give Republicans too much credit for the gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, particularly because Democrats simultaneously secured a high-profile House seat in upstate New York.

“We’re all going to make our decision about what to do [on health care] based on how the measure, as it comes to the floor, would affect the delivery of health care and the availability of it in our districts,— said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) a moderate whose 9th district went for Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell (R) by 34 points. “These are state-specific numbers. There is very little, if any, national message that stems from this.—

Freshman Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), whose district McDonnell carried by more than 10 points, said the message he drew from the election is that Democrats have to deliver on their agenda to re-energize their base.

“I concluded last night that we’ve got to pass health care on the merits but also for those reasons,— he said. Connolly, the president of the House Democrats’ freshman class, said he made that case during their weekly Wednesday breakfast with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The House is poised to vote on its health care overhaul on Saturday, while the Senate could still be weeks away from taking up its package. But in both chambers, moderates will be key to the bills’ passage.

One Democratic strategist who follows the Senate said his party’s leaders would be foolish to ignore what happened on Tuesday when bringing up health care reform. This strategist said his party could suffer in 2010 if it does not heed the warning signs of the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial contests, where incumbents were cast aside in favor of Republican challengers.

“If we continue down the path we are then it is obvious our Democratic leadership has a tin ear,— this operative said. “It amazes me — it’s like no remembers 1994. If people want to follow these liberal leaders off the cliff that is their prerogative, but any consultant advocating that is committing political malpractice.—

How moderates will end up voting on a health care bill remains to be seen. And in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s voting, Democratic Members seemed more apt to blame the candidates themselves, rather than the party or its agenda, for GOP gains.

Several moderate Members attributed the victories to lackluster Democratic campaigns and low voter turnout rather than a rejection of the party’s national agenda. And they noted that Democrat Bill Owens, who defeated Conservative Party hopeful Doug Hoffman in New York’s 23rd district, ran in part on the Democrats’ health care agenda.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a leading member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, chalked up Owens’ win to “a total collapse of the Republican agenda and the Republican party’s discipline— after conservative activists forced the official GOP nominee from the field.

Less prone to election-year jitters given only about a third of their chamber is up every two years, moderate Democratic Senators also said they weren’t concerned about this week’s results. Yet many of those centrist Democrats were already on edge about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) health care package. The bill is still under review by the Congressional Budget Office, and Members have yet to see any legislative language.

Unhappy with the inclusion of the public insurance option and queasy about the potential trillion-dollar cost, many moderates have refused to commit to support a motion to proceed to begin debating the bill. Additionally, Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who caucuses with Democrats, is vowing to filibuster to end debate on a final bill if it includes a public insurance option.

Moderate Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has been highly skeptical of President Barack Obama’s health care agenda. He said Tuesday’s election results didn’t change his views one way or the other.

“I think it was a referendum on the economy and on spending, and the people were able to take it out on incumbents — and so they did,— Nelson said. “I’ve had pause for a long time. I’ve been concerned about spending in Washington. So it was no wake-up call to me; I’m wide awake.—

Nelson, who also won’t commit to supporting a motion to proceed on the Senate health bill, reiterated that his vote would depend on the makeup of the final bill. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), another key centrist, said Democratic losses in New Jersey and Virginia would not have any influence on her vote.

That was a position shared by Democratic Congressional leaders, who argued the gubernatorial losses was not a referendum on Obama or the party’s agenda.

If anything, Democratic leaders in both chambers argued that they came out ahead, noting that the two Congressional races on the ballot — New York’s 23rd and California’s 10th — were won by Democrats. However, two Senate aides who work for moderate Democrats confirmed that the centrists are mindful of how health care reform might influence their prospects in 2010, particularly because the Republicans did so well among independent voters in Tuesday’s balloting.

“All Senators are judged not only on what they do, but by what they don’t do. The American people want health care reform,— Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said. “I’m going to bet on those Senators who go home and say, ‘Here’s what I delivered to you,’ versus those who said no to reform and show up empty-handed.—

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.

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