Running To Middle On Health Care

Centrists Like Kratovil May Be Key To Passing Overhaul

August 23, 2009|By Paul West | Paul West,

SALISBURY --Barely halfway through his first year in office, Rep. Frank Kratovil of Maryland is caught in the middle of the biggest legislative fight in recent memory: the national brawl over health care.

On one side are his party's leaders in Congress and President Barack Obama, whose supporters helped Kratovil become the first Eastern Shore Democrat elected to the House in 20 years. On the other side are many, if not most, constituents in his conservative district, where opposition to overhauling the health care system is widespread and many aren't shy about predicting that he'll be a one-term lawmaker.

"I'm still, I suppose, somewhat idealistic," Kratovil said in an interview. "The health care debate has been, at times, difficult, at times, exhausting. ... But ultimately, I'd like to think that so long as I remain balanced, I'll be able to do a good job and make an informed decision."

When Congress returns next month, Kratovil will find himself in a pivotal spot that has nothing to do with the rowdy protests against him - including famously being hanged in effigy late last month - or the location of his close-in district, which spans the Chesapeake Bay and has brought him more national news media attention than other House freshmen.

There are growing indications that Obama will have to rely almost exclusively on Democratic votes to overhaul the U.S. health care system. Obama said last week that he hasn't given up on a bipartisan solution, but the few Republicans involved in negotiations haven't seemed optimistic about coming up with a plan that could receive widespread support.

That would give Democratic moderates like Kratovil, a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, considerable leverage. Without some of the 52 Blue Dog votes, the president's top domestic initiative would almost surely fail.

Last week, during a round of public and private meetings in his district, including with groups of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and nursing home workers, Kratovil got an earful from opponents of the Democratic plan. Protesters weren't in evidence and the mood was more restrained than the angry confrontations that thrust him into the spotlight earlier this month, but the opposition seemed as intense.

Inside the prescription drug dispensary at Easton's Memorial Hospital, pharmacists in white shirts and nurses in pastel uniforms listened with grim faces as Kratovil outlined a plan that, in their view, would only mean more work and added stress for those who toil in an already overburdened medical system, as one of them said later.

At a Town Council meeting in Chestertown, Councilman Harrison C. Bristoll Jr. said he could "see nothing worse than having health care controlled by the government." Reached later by phone, Bristoll said that he and his wife were covered by Medicare and had no complaints about the program, then said he preferred not to discuss the matter further.

Before Kratovil addressed the Salisbury Chamber of Commerce, he spent several minutes with real estate agent Flo Wootten, trying to answer her questions. She told a reporter afterward that she was unconvinced by the congressman's assurance that there are no mandatory "death panels" in the Democratic plan, a misconception widely promoted by conservative opponents of the Democratic plan.

"I don't know what to believe," said the 72-year-old Republican voter. "People are just scared."

From the other side, a small group of social workers implored Kratovil to resist the opponents, invoking his mother Lynnda's career as a psychiatric social worker to help stiffen his spine.

"Please don't let the public option get compromised out," pleaded Pam Black, 60, an oncology social worker of Easton.

She and the others listened, with growing concern, as the congressman advised them that the House Democratic plan "has been so overwhelming to people, I'm not sure we're going to be able to convince the American public - regardless of what we do - that what we are doing is a good thing."

Kratovil, 41, whose political assets include an earnest manner, outsider rhetoric and choirboy looks, has staked out a position on the issue that is almost as complex as the legislation that he says he's been studying for weeks.

He opposes the measure currently under consideration in the House and will vote against it unless there are significant changes.

Among his objections: the price, which would add $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years, according to a preliminary estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. He's also concerned, he says, that the measure is too generous to the poor, at the expense of the middle class, and potentially harmful to rural areas of Maryland, like the Eastern Shore, which already have trouble attracting and keeping doctors.

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