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Democratic Fence-Sitters Hint at Possible Support of Health Bill

Reps. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) and Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), who voted against the House health care reform bill last fall, refused to be pinned down Sunday on their willingness to approve a Senate-passed bill. But they gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reasons to be optimistic that she may be able to pull off passage of a massive reform bill this month.

Appearing on Sunday talk shows to discuss the fate of the bill, Altmire, Baird and Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) declined to say how they would vote on the Senate measure and a separate budget reconciliation bill designed to address House concerns with the Senate-passed legislation, but Altmire and Baird appeared open to supporting the package.

In order to secure passage of both measures, Pelosi will likely need some of the 39 Democrats who voted against the measure last fall to support the Senate bill. Senate language on abortion funding threatens to rob Pelosi of several anti-abortion votes that she secured in November.

Altmire, on “Fox News Sunday,” dismissed the idea that he would be flip-flopping on health care if he voted for the Senate measure after voting against the House bill.

“Using the word ‘switch’ implies that this is the same bill. As I outlined, this is a very different finished product than where we were the first time we voted on this in November,” Altmire said.

He added, “There’s no question in my mind the Senate bill was much stronger than the House bill on cost-containment, and it did away with some of the things in the House bill that I was concerned about.”

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Baird said he still sees problems with the legislation. But he also hinted that he might vote for the bill because it is better than not having health care reform at all.

“My personal struggle, quite frankly, is, could we not do this in a much more elegant, simple, direct, straight-forward way — I think we could. I doubt I am going to get a chance to do that,” Baird said. “So the difficult choice for some of us is to say, ‘This is not the bill I would write by a darn sight but it is certainly better than the status quo. What would we do if we don’t have this option,'” to start from scratch.

Baird said he would vote ‘no’ on the bill “if I think we could come up with a better solution.” But he added, “To just say health care reform goes down and therefore nothing ever happens, that would be a tragedy.”

Later in the program, Baird seemed to take ownership of the bill, explaining that he has a friend with kidney cancer who is seeking a job that will provide him health coverage despite his preexisting condition. “Our Democratic bill would try to correct that,” Baird said, even though “I think it is much more complex than I would have favored.”

Baird, who is not running for re-election, said he would not simply “take one for the team” and vote for the bill if Democratic leaders asked him to.

Meanwhile, Adler appeared a tougher sell.

Asked on Fox News whether he was leaning against the Senate bill, Adler said, “We need health care reform. I’m not sure the bills coming through the House and Senate really address health care reform … I’m not sure we’ve gone far enough in terms of fixing the underlying system to make it affordable for businesses and taxpayers.”

Altmire also voiced concern about whether the Senate would be able to follow through on a plan to pass a budget reconciliation measure that would strip the bill of controversial provisions such as special Medicaid deal for Nebraska known as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”

“The Senate has given us a lot of reasons not to trust them. Certainly that’s a key component of the dynamic of getting the votes as there has to be some certainty that the Senate is going to follow through on their part,” Altmire said.

Altmire, who is anti-abortion rights, predicted that the changes the Senate made to abortion language could determine whether Pelosi can get the votes for the bill. Both bills bar federal funding of abortions, but anti-abortion activists feel the Senate measure does not go far enough.

“Abortion may be the decisive issue,” Altmire said. “We may see some vote holdouts based on that issue.”

But Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said on “Meet the Press” that neither the House or Senate bills would change the current policy of prohibiting the use of federal money to pay for abortions. Asked whether Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) is wrong to oppose the Senate bill over his concerns that it allows federal money to cover some abortions, Sebelius said “he’s misinformed about what the Senate language actually does.”