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Ohio Blue Dog Zack Space Defends Record, Takes Obama Call

5 years ago
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It didn't take long for Democrat Zack Space to start talking about health care once he returned home. He began a tour around Ohio's 18th Congressional district almost as soon as he arrived for the August recess, encountering skepticism on health care reform even from his Democratic constituents.

A member of the Blue Dog rebellion of seven Democrats that initially helped block health care legislation from leaving the House Energy and Commerce Committee (see Andrew Clark's 'recess primer' here and much more Politics Daily coverage here), Space met with Democrats Tuesday evening at a private residence outside the Coshocton city limits. Coshocton County is home to nearly 35,000 of Space's constituents, of which 14.8 percent are unemployed and 19.68 percent of adults are uninsured.

Space warned of insurance premiums as high as $2500 to $3000 per month for basic insurance without health care reform. "So if the Republicans tell you, 'we have the best health care in the world, leave it alone,' that is not acceptable." He discussed why he was a member of the Blue Dogs and even spoke of a uniquely supportive phone call from President Barack Obama.

Space's comments on being a Blue Dog on health care (emphasis mine):
"I'm on the Energy and Commerce Committee and one of those seven Blue Dogs that were on that committee that locked arms to stand together in the way of this health care reform that they wanted to impose upon us. The reason that I was standing with these other Blue Dogs is not that I don't believe health care needs reformed. I know that. It's obvious that it needs reformed. It just needs to be done right, and the system that was in this original bill that we were in opposition to would have hurt rural areas like ours. It would have hurt rural hospitals like ours because of some complicated issues of the reimbursement rates that the public plan was going to have. The hospital administrators that I've talked to - and I've talked to every one of them, I've been in every hospital in our district - were telling me that if you tie a the public plan's reimbursement rates to Medicare, they may go out of business. That is a line in the sand that I'm not willing to cross. We cannot afford to lose these local hospitals, because of the service that they offer. They provide great quality service and health care to us in times of need and they also are economic engines. We can't afford to lose those jobs. So we held together and we got what we needed out of leadership. We got negotiated rates on the public plan. We got an expansion of the small business exemption. We got a commitment to make this thing deficit neutral meaning we are going to have to pay for it. It's not going to be easy, but we're going to pay for it. We're going to do the responsible thing, and we're going to make a sincere effort to bring down the costs of health care. That may be the single biggest problem we face -- how do we bend that cost curve."

Space on his phone call from President Barack Obama (emphasis mine):
"Now if there are any doubts where I stand and the principles that I believe on health care I think they should be resolved by the story I'm going to tell you and this is an absolute true story. It just happened to me yesterday. I was in Licking County. We're doing this tour around this district talking to people about what this health bill represents and it was about 4 p.m. and my cell phone rang and it was President Obama. By the way President Obama was part of the negotiations between the Blue Dogs, Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Steny Hoyer and the seven Blue Dogs who were in this room for about two weeks. The President wasn't there the whole time, but when he wasn't there Rahm Emanuel was. He called me up not to complain to me, not to twist my arm, not to talk me into doing something I didn't want to do, but to tell me how much he appreciated me making that bill stronger, because in making that bill more moderate and making that bill something that most of America will find acceptable eventually, making that bill something that most of Congress will be able to get on the same gathering point on to pass health care reform saves that bill, the president knows it. We're going to change health care. We're going to fix it and this country is going to be stronger for it. Now, it's going to take us a while. One of the things as a Blue Dog that we negotiated was to postpone a floor vote until September. Now I know we received a lot of criticism for that. But I'd much rather get this thing done right than get it done fast and it just wasn't there yet. I'm not sure they had the support on the floor to get it passed anyway so in the end the American people are smart enough to know we need health care reform. This is not 1993 again. We're going to see health care reform. We're going to see it this year. We're going to see it done in a way that works for America so I'm very confident that we're going to get the job done."

Before taking questions, Space asked if there were any tea party protestors in the audience. No one answered, but he followed up by saying, "If there are teabaggers in the crowd, just understand I'm not going to allow this forum to be used by you to disrupt my attempt to send a message regarding this health care policy. Perhaps there are none here and if that's the case, hallelujah." He had evidently heard about the Town Hall protests happening all over the country.

The audience of fellow Democrats still put Space in the hot seat, asking about the unsatisfactory state of universal health care in Canada and how it might compare to an American system. "I suggest to find out you go to Canada and ask the Canadians how it works rather than take the word of Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, but in reality that really doesn't matter to us because we're not doing a single-payer system here. We're not doing what some people refer to as socialized medicine. That's not what this health care bill does."

Another Democrat asked about how health care reform would be paid for and what is being done to ensure that the cost wouldn't fall on the middle class. A retiree happy with her insurance asked if health care reform would mean she would be told which hospitals and doctors she was to use. Yet another Democrat asked about a woman she knew who was uninsured and worked at a fast food restaurant that could only gain access to insurance coverage if she quit her job. Space explained that only those at the highest income levels would get higher taxes and that the system should allow health care users to choose their own doctors and hospitals. He said that the uninsured restaurant worker mentioned is exactly who the bill is targeting.

Over the past few weeks, Space has received significant criticism from party officials as well as columnists and television commentators. After more than a week of negotiations, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat, complained afterwards: "We're not going to let them empower Republicans to control the committee." During a subsequent meeting, Democrats reportedly blasted Arkansas Representative Mike Ross and Space for delaying the bill. But a Politico article suggested Waxman and the Democrats in fact owe their majority in Congress to its conservative members like Space. In 2005, the article explains, Democrats sought to elect more conservative members in order to obtain a majority over Republicans.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman raised the possibility that some Blue Dogs like Space have disrupted the bill's process because they want Obama to fail, and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann warned Blue Dogs in a scathing commentary on Countdown: "We do not need to call the Democrats holding this up 'Blue Dogs.' That one word, 'dogs' is perfectly sufficient . . . You were elected to serve the people, and if you fail to pass or support this legislation the full wrath of the progressive and the moderate movements in this country will come down on your heads."

Space may feel wrath from closer to home first. Space's district was revealed as a GOP target in the 2010 election, and signs of opposition within the historically conservative district indicate some vulnerability. Combined with dissent over his Cap-and-Trade "yes" vote in a district heavily influenced by coal, Space's health care stance could prove costly. As moderate as he claims to be, Space cast the deciding vote shooting down an amendment to the health care bill that would have imposed requirements for coverage of abortion -- except when a woman's life is in danger or her pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. "This is a subject that belongs within the confines of the relationship between a woman, her family and her doctor," Space told me as he walked to his car after the event was over. "The suggestion that I've voted for publicly funded abortions is flat out wrong."

Small business owners are also less than pleased with Space's support of health care reform. As Space was speaking to Democrats in Coshocton, small business owners in Gratiot, Ohio held a news conference to express their concerns with a requirement for business owners to carry insurance on full and part-time employees unless the business falls under a $250,000 payroll exemption.

The evening with Coshocton Democrats may not have changed Zack Space's health reform stances, but he will continue to be tested by constituents and national media and political leaders alike during the congressional recess, not to mention the beginnings of his re-election campaign. Whether it is firm principles, a strong base of support, encouraging phone calls from the President, or a little of everything, this Blue Dog will need plenty of tricks as he plays an influential role in a crucial national debate.


Follow Joshua on Twitter @JoshuaChaney

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