Rep. Brian Baird still not sold on healthcare reform

The Washington Democrat is retiring after this year, but he still may not vote for the healthcare bill

Published March 3, 2010 5:59PM (EST)

As House Democratic leaders cast around for votes to pass the Senate's healthcare reform bill (followed by a reconciliation measure that "fixes" parts of the bill), the three Democrats who voted against the bill last fall and plan to retire after this year are prime targets for lobbying. But if Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., is any indication, that may mean the bill is in trouble.

In a brief interview with Salon Tuesday night, Baird didn't sound particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of switching his vote. "I get all these people advocating, calls and letters, saying vote one way or the other," he said. "I don't know how they know what's going to be in it -- because I sure don't."

Baird, a clinical psychologist first elected in 1998, has young twin sons, and told Pacific Northwest reporters in December the grind of lawmaking was wearing on him. You might think the fact that he's retiring would free him from political concerns about the healthcare bill. Still, even though he won't have to face voters again, Baird has substantive and political worries about what leadership is asking members to do.

"The House bill was less bad than the status quo, but that doesn't make it good in my mind," he said. By building on the existing structures of various Medicare programs, Medicaid, S-CHIP and other state health programs, the reform bill maintains what Baird sees as inefficiencies that should be fixed. And while he's all for banning insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and some of the bill's other provisions, he's concerned about how to explain it to voters.

"We had a series of briefings in the Democratic caucus," he said. "At the final briefing before the vote, there were -- I would guess -- 30 staffers, most of them master's or Ph.D's, many of whom spent their entire life on healthcare; experts in the arcanery of this bill, and they would stand up one by one and answer questions as they arose from the caucus... You have to say, so what's the average person supposed to do to make sense of this if it takes 30 Ph.D career staff members to explain it? And that's after months of prior explanation."

The process Democrats have been left with to finish the bill also concerns him. Because Republicans will filibuster any new Senate bill, the House will have to pass the Senate's version, then use reconciliation to combine them.

"We're going to be asked, 'Okay, up or down,' on a Senate bill, under reconciliation rules which we don't know will the Senate vote for it, will it be included under reconciliation," he said. "So they're going to say, 'Okay, vote for this bill, because it would do X,' but under reconciliation, X may not make it past the parliamentarian's gate... We're not sure what's in it [and] we don't know whether it'll pass the Senate anyway."

So if Baird is supposed to be one of the easy votes to get, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies may have some work to do.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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