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Friday, August 7, 2009 - 2:02pm

Recess Gives Blue Dog Time to Explain

A few weeks ago, Congress' conservative Blue Dog coalition scored its biggest success yet in the year's biggest political issue: an overhaul of the nation's health care system. Two Georgia Representatives are among the 52 Democrats who see themselves as the party's centrist "majority makers."

When the conservative Blue Dogs announced that they'd reached a deal essentially unjamming health care legislation from a morass of Democratic squabbling, liberals called it an attempt to derail health care reform. Savannah Congressman John Barrow says, he saw it as a critical attempt at bi-partisansanship in a very complicated issue.

"It's our job to make sure that legislation coming out of the House is either bipartisan in fact or bipartisan in effect," Barrow says. "It's bipartisan in fact if we can get Republicans to vote for it. It's bipartisan in effect if it's something they should vote for but don't for political reasons."

Right now, there is no final bill for anyone to vote for or against. There likely won't be until September. Until then, lots of ideas are floating around various committees. Among the ideas Blue Dogs made part of their deal with Democratic leaders is one that would separate Medicare reimbursement rates from those in any possible "public option." Liberals say, that would weaken public health insurance. Barrow says, health providers shouldn't be "drafted" into taking patients at Medicare rates.

"I thought that was overly burdensome," Barrow says. "People are already having a hard time making ends meet with the rather large book of business they got with Medicare patients. What they lack in getting reimbursed on a case-by-case basis, they tend to make up in the rather large volume of Medicare patients. But that doesn't mean folks can double their load at that rate of reimbursement."

The Blue Dogs won other concessions, including exempting more businesses from a health care payroll tax. Still, Democrats went into the summer recess with no consensus on how to pay for health care legislation. Barrow says, that more than any other reason is why he voted against the health care bill that came before a committee on which he sits, the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"The idea that you have to take the first bid or the first offer that's made is just unacceptable," Barrow says. "You don't do that when you go out to buy a house. You don't take the first house that's offered, especially if it's wildly overpriced and doesn't really fit your needs."

Barrow was one of five Democrats who voted against the Energy and Commerce bill before the break. It still passed the committee 31-to-28. It's unclear how far Blue Dogs will take their opposition. Robert Eisinger, an expert on politics and polling at the Savannah College of Art and Design says, if health care legislation stalls, it's more of a problem for President Barack Obama than Congressman Barrow.

"This administration has made it a point of basically promising health care reform. And I would argue, he's going to get health care reform," Eisinger says. "The only question is, What is it going to look like and When is it going to pass? But it's not a risk for the Congressmen from Georgia. They have a duty to listen to their constituents."

Barrow says, he plans to use the August recess to hear what people in his sprawling East Georgia district think about health care. His GOP counterparts are using the break to mount opposition to the plans in Congress. Georgia's other Blue Dog Democrat is Jim Marshall of Macon. A spokesman told GPB that Marshall was unavailable for comment.

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