WASHINGTON – Tough re-election campaigns looming, a handful of moderate Senate Democrats on Thursday choose between voting to cut off funds for President Barack Obama’s health care law or showing their continued their support for the increasingly unpopular law.
The deal on the spending bill struck by Obama, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., requires a separate vote on cutting off money for the year-old health care overhaul. The effort is expected to fall short in the Senate, but it will put lawmakers on record — a prospect Republicans looking ahead to 2012 relish.
Moderate Democrats such as Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska stood with Obama and Democratic leaders in endorsing the health care law. Abandoning it now would draw charges of flip-flopping while voting to keep the cash flowing could engender voters’ wrath.
“People are going to have to make a tough choice, but they’re going to be held accountable either way,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the committee that helps Republicans get elected to the Senate.
Referring to the original votes on the law, Cornyn said, “It’s a dilemma of their own making.”
McCaskill, Tester and Nelson have drawn GOP rivals in states that either trend heavily Republican (Montana and Nebraska) or stand as electoral battlegrounds (Missouri). Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin has no announced foes in West Virginia and remains popular, but his state voters strongly backed Republican presidential nominee John McCain over Obama by 13 percentage points in 2008.
Hours before the roll call, McCaskill said she will vote against any effort to cut off money for the law.
“I voted for the bill and I think there are real cost savings in the bill,” she said.
In Missouri, however, the sentiment runs against the law. Voters last year overwhelmingly backed a ballot measure that would nullify the health care law. The margin was 3-to-1. Just this week, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster filed a court brief challenging the main provision of the health care law — the requirement that most Americans get insurance. Koster, a Republican turned Democrat, endorsed the effort of more than two dozen governors and attorneys general who have filed suit contending the requirement is unconstitutional.
In Montana, a recent poll showed Tester running about even with his Republican rival, Rep. Denny Rehberg. The survey also found strong support for repealing the health care law, with 57 percent backing such a step.
Overall, public support for the divisive health care law has dropped to its lowest level since Obama signed it last March, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll. Forty-five percent oppose the overhaul while 35 percent say they support the changes, with a significant drop among independents.
Among seniors, one of the most reliable voting blocs, 59 percent oppose the law while just 29 percent support it. A narrow majority of seniors — 51 percent — say they trust Republicans over Democrats to handle health care.
“My read, especially from southern Illinois that shares a media market with Missouri, is it is increasingly unpopular, especially with seniors who realize the Medicare cuts in the law,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Kirk and his Republicans have a legitimate shot at capturing control of the Senate in 2012 despite the Democratic Party’s inherent advantages with an incumbent president at the top of the ticket. Democrats must defend 21 seats to the Republicans’ 10, including seats open due to retirements in North Dakota and Virginia.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who would take charge if the GOP wins the Senate in 2012, has pushed for a health care vote.
“The more we continue to talk about the president’s health care bill the more we’re playing on fertile ground for Republicans,” said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In the negotiations last week, House Republicans had wanted to make it even tougher on Democrats. They pushed for the spending bill to include a provision cutting off funds for the health care law, which would have forced Democrats to muster the votes to eliminate it. They also envisioned a simple majority to pass the separate measure rather than the harder 60-vote threshold that the White House and Congress settled on.
Senior Democratic leadership aides said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, came up with the compromise. On Thursday, he was on the Senate floor defending the law. “I’m open to revisiting health care reform,” he said, but “the notion of wiping the slate clean would be a step backward for Americans.”
Said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the committee to help elect Democrats: “This is just a complete charade and unfortunate distraction from the real work that’s got to get done.”
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