WASHINGTON — A Republican's stunning Senate victory in Massachusetts gives pause to San Joaquin Valley Democrats now weighing a controversial and ambitious health care overhaul.
Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced and Jim Costa of Fresno voted for the bill once. But they also represent a conservative-leaning region, where there's already abundant skepticism about the federal government. Together, they regard the Massachusetts results as a sign to slow down.
"If the administration and leadership don't pay attention to this wake-up call, then they'll get what they deserve," Costa warned Wednesday, adding that Congress should adopt "something far more modest" on health care reform.
Cardoza voiced similar sentiments, adding pointedly that "the White House has dropped the ball" on some issues, including tending to the Valley's economic woes.
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"They better get the message that came out of Massachusetts last night," Cardoza said Wednesday afternoon.
Without pervasive exit polls, lawmakers are hindered in interpreting Republican Scott Brown's victory. No one can definitively say whether the previously obscure 50-year-old state senator won primarily because of his opponent's shortcomings, voter dissatisfaction with congressional health care reform efforts or some combination of reasons.
But Brown's win, taking a seat held for 46 years by the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, undeniably complicates life for congressional Democrats. In the Senate, his victory deprives Democrats of the 60-vote margin needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
In the House, the complications are particularly acute for the so-called Blue Dogs, who represent conservative districts. They accounted for most of the 39 House Democrats who voted against the health care legislation last year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cannot afford many more defections, as the House approved its original bill by a scant 220-215 margin. House Republicans are united against the legislation.
"This proves the health care bill is an albatross," Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said of the Massachusetts vote, adding that Costa and Cardoza "have got a hell of a political mess on their hands."
Nunes said recent Valley polls have shown Costa and Cardoza with declining political support, and he said "they should consider switching parties" and "back away from their (previous) vote" for the House health care package.
In recent weeks, senior Democrats have been hammering out a final bill whose 10-year price tag could hover around $900 billion. Some health care reform advocates initially suggested rushing the bill through before Brown is sworn in. Skeptics consider that a mistake.
"If we continue down the path we're on, we are showing the height of arrogance, and a tin ear," Costa said. "If we don't listen to what the American people are saying, we could well lose our majority in the fall."
Cardoza added that the defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in Massachusetts "confirms what I've been saying privately in leadership meetings, that we need to focus on first things first." He suggested this could include "as much as we can do" on health care, but without overreaching and with quick attention to economic recovery plans.
Costa and Cardoza agreed that lawmakers should cut through the 1,990-page House bill to find common ground. This could include the "portability" of insurance coverage for workers who change jobs, as well as ensuring coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions.
Costa and Cardoza also want the health care bill to include funding for a new medical school at the University of California at Merced. The House bill authorizes funding for new schools, like the one proposed in Merced, but the Senate bill does not.