Altmire says no to health care bill

Cost too high and constituents oppose it, McCandless Democrat declares

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WASHINGTON -- Deluged with tens of thousands of calls and e-mails in recent weeks, the vast majority urging him to vote against the health care overhaul, U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire on Friday announced he will vote against the historic legislation.

Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, said he felt that the bill did not do enough to bring down the cost of health care -- a principal campaign issue for the former UPMC lobbyist -- and that his district was overwhelmingly opposed to it.

After voting against the more expensive original House bill in November, Mr. Altmire had shown signs that he preferred the slimmer Senate measure and the $940 billion compromise revealed this week that would add 32 million Americans to the health insurance rolls.

That set off a highly visible public wavering that resulted in a flurry of advertising -- including at least one banner flapping from an airplane -- and protests in Mr. Altmire's district.

Mr. Altmire, though he wouldn't say if he went through with a poll he was considering, tallied his correspondence and pored through the revised Senate bill. Both approaches, he said, led him to the conclusion that he couldn't support it.

"I want systemic reform that's going to lower the costs of health care," Mr. Altmire said in an interview.

"If you just cover everybody, have the American taxpayer pay to bring more people into the system -- which is what this does -- and do the insurance reforms, you're not changing the delivery system at all. You're just changing who pays."

Another decisive factor, he said, was the bill's proposed cuts to Medicare Advantage, privately administered Medicare plans that are more popular in the Pittsburgh area than anywhere else in the country.

He also said that the convoluted process to pass the bill -- in which arcane legislative terms like "reconciliation" and "deem and pass" have entered the public lexicon as never before -- didn't help.

"When you have the polls against it, you have a process that people aren't comfortable with and you're doing it with a strictly party line vote with probably a handful of margin, I just don't think the public's going to be willing to support that -- not in my district," he said.

Ross Baker, a Rutgers University scholar who's written extensively about Congress, saw Mr. Altmire's announcement as a profile in calculation.

"I think Jason Altmire has gotten himself a pass from [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi," Mr. Baker said, when informed of Mr. Altmire's decision. "I think he's not needed. I think they sense it's a very weird district when you have places like Sewickley and Aliquippa. I think they want to hold onto this guy. They've decided that he's vulnerable and they want to give him a chance to hold on to the seat. ... Right now, it's a lot of manufactured drama; they wouldn't schedule the vote unless they knew where their votes were going to be."

Mr. Altmire laughed at the idea that he had gotten some kind of permission from the Democratic leadership.

"That definitely wasn't the case," he said. "They're disappointed."

Mr. Altmire said he hadn't given the White House and House leaders a specific heads-up about his announcement, but he told them Wednesday that he was leaning strongly towards a no vote. At no point, he said, were any offers or threats made by top Democrats.

"There wasn't any discussion about anything other than policy and what I wanted to see in the bill," he said.

The decision left Ms. Pelosi one fewer option available to get to 216 votes by Sunday, when a vote on the package is expected.

On Friday, Democrats, Republicans and news organizations offered competing whip counts. Democrats, citing switches from "no" to "yes" by Reps. Allen Boyd, D-Fla., and John Boccieri, D-Ohio, tried to portray a rising momentum for passage. Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and his claim that he has 12 Democrats ready to switch to "no" if the abortion language in the bill does not change.

And the media parsed through the public statements of fence-sitters who often left themselves substantial wiggle room.

Mr. Altmire, with his late afternoon announcement, ended the speculation about his vote while fueling talk of his re-election prospects.

Back in the 4th Congressional District, the news upset the Democratic base that helped propel him to victory against Republican Melissa Hart in 2006 and '08.

Attorney Gianni Floro, of Leet, said he and others who had been early backers of Mr. Altmire have become thoroughly disillusioned.

"I think there will be a great number fewer supporters the next go-round," Mr. Floro said.

Allegheny County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn said Mr. Altmire is turning his back on his base at his own peril.

"To the extent that he thinks he is appeasing some of the conservative forces in his district, I think he's miscalculated," Mr. Burn said. "They weren't for him in '06 and '08 and they won't be for him now despite this vote."

Indeed, far from being satisfied, Patti Weaver, of Fox Chapel, who has helped lead "tea party" groups to Washington to speak with Mr. Altmire, said she was upset with him and is convinced Ms. Pelosi gave him the go-ahead to vote no.

"Personally I would respect someone who has backbone and looks at the bill and says this is a disaster," Ms. Weaver said. "It seems to me that he doesn't have the backbone to make his own decisions. He was told what to do. I really am sad to find this out that he's a puppet."

Former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who is seeking the Republican nomination against attorney Keith Rothfus to run against Mr. Altmire in the fall, also criticized the incumbent for not coming out against the bill sooner and leading a charge to kill it or shape it differently.

"Although he did come to the right decision, he shouldn't have sat on the fence as long as he has," Ms. Buchanan said. "People in the district have been clear they are opposed to 'Obamacare.' "

Health care will continue to be a campaign issue, said G. Terry Madonna, professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, but Mr. Altmire will be able to tell voters around the district why he voted against it and cast himself as willing to go against his party. But, Mr. Madonna added, he still has a "D" next to his name in a year when that could be a major liability.

"Voting against this helps him more than it hurts him, absolutely, but he can't run away from his party," Mr. Madonna said. "His fear is a tidal wave against the party, and this helps him a bit but doesn't insulate him completely against the tidal wave effect."

Mr. Altmire claimed he did not have tidal waves or re-election campaigns on his mind when he made his choice, and he was merely weighing the merits of the bill and the wishes of his constituents.

"This is probably the biggest vote of my career, and I want to have done the right thing," he said. "It's not about politics. It's about representing my district. I think it's the right vote on policy, and I know it's the right vote for representing my district."

Daniel Malloy: or 1-202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC. Politics Editor James O'Toole contributed.


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