Healthcare's dealbreakers: Blanche Lincoln wants to focus on jobs

Arkansas' Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln voted to move the healthcare bill along for debate in the Senate. But she's vulnerable in her conservative home state, and trying to shift focus to jobs and the economy.

Danny Johnston/AP
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), listens to a panel of Arkansas farmers at a field hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., Monday.

After casting the decisive vote to begin debate on healthcare reform, Sen. Blanche Lincoln returned to Arkansas this week to hold her first field hearing as the new chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

It’s a chance to get back to talking about what most concerns her constituents – jobs and the economy – instead of what makes them angry: big government programs, taxes, and deficits. With a tough reelection bid in 2010, Senator Lincoln’s effort to change the subject comes none too soon.

She has taken tough votes to support the Democratic caucus, but none at such a vulnerable moment in her own election cycle. A recent poll by Zogby International shows Lincoln narrowly edging out a likely Republican opponent – until healthcare is added to the mix. When asked how they would respond if Lincoln voted with Democrats on healthcare, her two-point advantage shifted to a 14-point deficit.

Healthcare is "something that can hurt her in a reelection bid,” says pollster John Zogby, who notes that the poll was conducted for a conservative group that opposes healthcare reform. “Americans want health care reform, but what they see so far scares them more than it appeals to them.”

For months, the dialogue inside the new Democratic majority has been on bills Arkansas voters don’t warm to – an overhaul of the US healthcare system and new mandates on climate change. Lincoln is urging congressional leaders and the Obama White House to shift the focus to jobs.

At the Senate committee hearing in Little Rock, Ark., Lincoln said she was “excited about the opportunities this presents for Arkansans to elevate their voice in Washington on issues critical to the economic well-being of our state.”

While both of the state’s US senators are Democrats, they must be attentive to a conservative electorate. President Bush won here in 2004 by more than 20 points. The daughter of a sixth-generation Arkansas farmer, Lincoln has stayed close to her rural roots both in policy and in personal style.

Despite a conservative home base, Lincoln has voted with Democratic leadership 81 percent of the time in 2008, compared with 72 percent for Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, another red state, and 69 percent for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, according to a survey by Congressional Quarterly.

Conservative and business groups have poured millions into advertising campaigns targeting swing-state lawmakers, such as Lincoln, on upcoming healthcare votes. All three senators – Lincoln, Nelson, and Landrieu – had signaled opposition to elements of the bill, especially the public option, but opted to back Democratic leadership when it came to moving healthcare reform to the Senate floor for debate.

More than $3.3 million worth of media ads, most with her name, had been purchased in Arkansas by groups from outside of the state, she said before that Nov. 21 vote.

“Still, I have continued to approach this issue as I always do. These outside groups seem to think this is all about my reelection. I simply don't think they know me very well,” she added.

Lincoln’s priorities for the debate on healthcare reform include ensuring that the legislation remains deficit neutral, that it protects Medicare benefits, that it enhances choice and competition for individuals and small businesses, and access to quality healthcare providers, especially in rural America.

“Today, I am thinking about the Arkansas working family who can't pay their mortgage because of their sick child's medical bills. I am thinking of the Arkansas small business owner who told me that more than 20 percent of the cost of running his business now goes to health insurance for him and his workers. I am thinking about the 450,000 Arkansans who have no health insurance,” she said, in announcing her decision to vote to move healthcare to the floor.

“I am not thinking about my reelection, the legacy of a president, or whether Democrats or Republicans are going to claim victory in winning the debate.”


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