Health care reform remains the defining feature of Pennsylvania's biggest congressional primary this spring, even though both Democrats in the 12th District race disagreed with President Barack Obama over his signature 2-year-old law.
Democratic congressmen Jason Altmire and Mark Critz are locked in a bitter fight for their party's nomination and are the only incumbents statewide facing off April 24. There is plenty of legislation the pair disagree on, but much of the internecine battle pivots on the health package both of the conservative Democrats opposed.
When Mr. Altmire, D-McCandless, voted against the measure in 2010, it created a backlash with organized labor, which had supported him since his first congressional run in 2006. Every major union in Western Pennsylvania is supporting Mr. Critz, D-Johnstown. Mr. Altmire in turn has endorsements from Democratic committees in Allegheny, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.
"I'm confident we're going to pick up the lion's share of votes from working families," Mr. Altmire said in a talk with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial writers Friday. "There was some animosity generated over the health care issue and the vote that occurred and [unions] have been looking to run somebody against me in the primary ever since."
Mr. Critz won a special election in 2010 to replace the late Rep. John Murtha and was not yet in Congress to vote on the health package. But he said he would have opposed it because of detrimental effects on rural hospitals in his current district, heavily represented by Cambria and Somerset counties.
As for his support from labor, Mr. Critz said "I've developed a very strong relationship with them. They trust me that at the end of the day I'll be there standing with them."
Republicans in charge of redistricting combined Mr. Altmire's current 4th District seat with Mr. Critz's 12th District seat last year. The district covers parts of Allegheny, Beaver, Cambria, Lawrence, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. Edgeworth attorney Keith Rothfus is unopposed for the GOP nomination to the seat.
Every study on congressional voting patterns shows the two men are among the most conservative Democrats in Pennsylvania's delegation, but they do have some differences. Mr. Altmire supported a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution; federal funding for Planned Parenthood; the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill; and supported repealing the "don't ask don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Mr. Critz took opposite positions.
The balanced budget amendment was a Republican-driven measure that Mr. Critz said would endanger Social Security, Medicare and veterans benefits. It "is pandering to the right wing and would be devastating to programs," he said. Mr. Altmire denied the entitlements would be hurt.
Mr. Altmire called the military policy on gays part of "the civil rights issue of our time," while Mr. Critz said he was dissatisfied when the military did not issue a requested report on its effect on bases.
He said he did not support financial industry reform because it would hurt small banks and credit unions in his district. Mr. Altmire did not buy that, saying institutions with less than $10 billion in assets would have been exempted.
Coming after the financial meltdown in 2008, only "the far right of the Democratic party" voted against Dodd-Frank, said Mr. Altmire. "I can't imagine voting against doing something when we almost literally saw our entire economy collapse. That for me was a very easy vote."