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Conservative Democrats at Center of Health Debate

Fiscally conservative House Democrats have thrust themselves into the middle of the health care reform debate this week, blocking legislation drafted by their own party's leadership.

If the 52 members of the Blue Dog Coalition remain united against the bill, they could bar its passage in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and later in the full House.

On Tuesday, objections by Blue Dog members of the committee to the cost and other aspects of the health care bill prompted committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to delay discussing and amending the legislation for at least a day. Also Tuesday, President Barack Obama met with all Democratic members of the committee.

Eight of those Democrats are Blue Dogs. Seven of the eight - Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Baron Hill of Indiana, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, Mike Ross of Arkansas and Zack Space of Ohio - said they have serious problems with the bill's estimated $1 trillion cost over 10 years.

Only Rep. Jane Harman of California spoke in favor of the legislation.

In a show of solidarity, the seven read the same opening statement last week when the Energy and Commerce Committee began discussing the bill.

"Our current system is riddled with inefficiencies and waste," the statement said. "We cannot fix these problems by simply pouring more money into a broken system."

Members of the Blue Dog Coalition also say the House bill:

- Wouldn't reduce the growth in health care costs.

- Would punish small businesses by raising taxes on families making more than $350,000 per year as a way to pay for health care reform.

"Why would we want new taxes in the middle of a recession?" said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., a Blue Dog who also is an expert on health care.

- Would not insure all of the approximately 46 million people without health insurance. The bill would leave about 9 million people uninsured, the Congressional Budget office estimates.

Pelosi downplayed any conflict within her party on Tuesday, as did Obama.

The president has said he wants health reform legislation to pass before Congress leaves for its August recess.

Two House panels, the Ways and Means Committee and the Education and Labor Committee, have approved the House health care reform bill.

A similar bill has won approval in the Senate health committee, but that bill doesn't address how to finance the health care reform effort. The Senate Finance Committee is struggling to reach bipartisan agreement on that issue.

Some are suggesting Congress will have to work through its normal monthlong August break to reach consensus on health care reform.

Rep. Mike Arcuri of New York, a Blue Dog Democrat, said slowing down will ease Americans' fears that Congress is "shoving probably the most important piece of legislation that we've passed in many years down their throat."

"It will be very helpful for me to have a bill to go home with during the recess to talk to people in my district." Arcuri said.

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