WASHINGTON — As an undecided vote on health care, Rep. Henry Cuellar is at the epicenter of the health care debate. But instead of feeling battered and blue, Texas' only Blue Dog Democrat is enjoying the process and pushing for his issues: Medicaid expansion, tort reform and no federal funding of abortion.
"I'm undecided, and as a good lawyer and politician, I want to see the language" before committing, he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. "Bottom line, you don't sign anything without reading it."
Although Cuellar voted for the House version of the bill, he has enough problems with the Senate version, and what might come out of the House process this week, that he's biding his time.
"We know what's in the Senate bill, but I want to know what substantive changes might be made to things like Medicaid expansion and tort reform expansion," he said.
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Blue Dog Democrats are fiscal conservatives who can also be social conservatives and represent a tough bloc for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to win over.
Cuellar said he has spoken to Pelosi — who is looking for every single vote to secure the 216 she needs to pass the health care legislation — but has not gotten any promises or anything in return. "They're not giving anybody any commitments," he said.
As a representative for the congressional district with the third highest number of uninsured in the country, Cuellar wants to know details of coverage plans and the costs to the state. He is also concerned about protecting Texas' tort limitations, which he secured in the House version of the bill but which is not part of the Senate version.
"I want to make sure federal law doesn't pre-empt state law," said Cuellar.
But the red-light issue that gets the most attention is abortion and on that Cuellar is determined that the existing amendment prevail, forbidding federal funds to be used for abortions. The Senate bill is controversial with anti-abortion groups because it sets up a system that would allow policyholders to buy abortion insurance. Cuellar said he is waiting for a White House interpretation of the Senate language.
Cuellar said he is untroubled by the various procedures Pelosi is considering using, such as "deem and call," which would treat the Senate bill as if it had passed the House and incorporate changes into it.
Republicans have blasted Democrats for the potential use of the procedure.
"It's kind of hypocritical for one party to say, 'This is new,' when this has been used in the past by both parties," said Cuellar. "At the end of the day, I'm more interested in policy than procedure."