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Moderates Go Their Own Way on Health Care

Moderate Senate Democrats on Monday dismissed any suggestion that opposition to health care reform by their home-state colleagues in the House would pressure them into following suit when legislation hits the Senate floor sometime in the next few weeks.

With the House narrowly approving a $1.2 trillion health care package, Republicans have moved to up the pressure on moderate Senate Democrats who have wavered in their support of a bill negotiated by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“Alaska has very diverse views on issues,— the state’s junior Senator, Mark Begich (D), said, when asked if his vote would be influenced by Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) “no— vote on Saturday and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) firm opposition to what she has seen in the Senate. “I’ll look at the bill by itself and I’ll look how it affects Alaska. That’s what I’ll do.—

Particularly for moderate Senate Democrats with home-state Democratic House colleagues who were among the 39 voting against their party Saturday, the GOP is hoping to make it increasingly uncomfortable for them to side with leadership.

Centrist Democratic Senators in this position, however, are brushing aside any notion that they are in a political bind.

Democratic Senators representing highly populated states are unlikely to take into account a vote against the House health care bill by one or more Members of his state’s House delegation. Such states tend to have several districts gerrymandered along party lines, and any particular House seat does not necessarily reflect the politics of the state as a whole.

But for moderate Democratic Senators representing small- to medium-size states — particularly those that tend to vote Republican in presidential elections, gubernatorial contests or both — the possibility of political complications arising from a House colleague’s vote remains. This, at least, is the argument Senate Republican leaders are making as they seek to harness the votes of centrist Democrats to help them reshape, if not block, Reid’s forthcoming bill.

On Monday, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office released a missive highlighting the “no— votes of all Democratic House Members from states with either one or two Democratic Senators. But Republicans are specifically focused on Arkansas, Colorado, North Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia, among a few others.

Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said “of course it does— put pressure on moderate Senate Democrats if centrist Democrats within their House delegation opposed that chamber’s health care bill. Alexander likened the situation to how a governor’s position on reform could influence a Senator’s position.

“When governors like Gov. [Phil] Bredesen [D] of Tennessee tells us it’s going to cost [our state] $1.4 billion over the next five years, it makes a big difference to me,— Alexander said.

Senate Republicans hope to cast a local, unfriendly spotlight on Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet (Colo.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Mark Warner (Va.) and Jim Webb (Va.). The GOP either hopes to frustrate the Democratic leadership’s goal of clearing a bill off the floor by year’s end, or to profit in the 2010 midterms.

Bennet, an appointee, is seeking election next year in a swing state that saw freshman Rep. Betsy Markey (D-Colo.), who sits in the Republican-leaning 4th district, vote against the House bill. Lincoln faces the prospect of a tough re-election in 2010, and one of her moderate Democratic House colleagues, Rep. Mike Ross (Ark.), also voted against the House bill.

Meanwhile, Hagan hails from a state that went narrowly for Obama last year but leans conservative. On Saturday, three House Democrats from North Carolina voted against the House bill. In Virginia, two House Democrats who represent Republican-leaning districts voted “no,— while South Dakota’s lone House Member also voted against the bill.

However, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said these Senators and others in the majority will not be scared into opposing health care reform based on the House votes of some of their home-state Democratic colleagues. The political atmospherics that influence House Members and Senators are significantly different, as are the House and Senate bills, this aide explained.

A spokeswoman for Johnson indicated Monday that her boss is unconcerned by Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin’s (D-S.D.) vote against the House bill. “While we’re still waiting for the final details of the Senate bill to be brought to the floor, Sen. Johnson remains very supportive of the hard work done to date and looks forward to supporting a strong bill in the Senate,— Julianne Fisher, Johnson’s spokeswoman, said.

Johnson handily won a third term just last year.

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