From msnbc.com's Tom Curry
Blue Dog Democrat Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana's second congressional district faced an audience of 80 skeptical elderly constituents at the Pilgrim Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in the small town of Plymouth, Indiana Tuesday.
One woman, Dona Darling, 86, voiced worry that if Congress enacts the overhaul of health insurance which Donnelly and his colleagues are debating, she wouldn't be able to see her doctor, because he'd be too busy dealing with all his new insured patients who used to be uninsured.
A man in the audience told Donnelly that it's not just federal spending on Medicare and Medicaid and the new health insurance plan – it's all federal spending that's gotten out of control, leading to massive borrowing from China and soon "we're all going to have to learn Chinese."
"I won't support any plan that actually costs the taxpayers money," Donnelly assured the audience. He added that the House Energy and Commerce Committee bill, H.R. 3200, "is not deficit neutral right now." CBO has scored it as costing $232 billion over ten years and, he added, "That's $232 billion we don't have."
Why is Donnelly – and his so-far noncommittal attitude – important?
Because he's one of the 52 fiscally cautious Blue Dog House Democrats – many representing Republican-leaning rural districts in the South and Midwest. If Speaker Nancy Pelosi loses all of the Blue Dogs, she won't have enough votes to get a bill passed.
Donnelly signaled his preference for a far less sweeping bill instead of one that tries to solve all health care problems at once.
"What's being discussed right now is: are there a couple of incremental steps, rather than trying to bite off the whole thing at one time?"
Later, in an interview, Donnelly asked rhetorically, "Would people accept it better if it were just one or two steps to try to fix some of the things that are broken?"
He suggested that it might be better "if we take a few steps now, we get those passed; a few steps next year, same thing, and work on the areas of most critical importance."
Any bill, he said must solve the problem of denial of insurance to those with pre-existing medical conditions – and it must be deficit neutral.
He told us that, yes, he is getting a lot more push-back from constituents than he usually does on trips home, with huge turnouts of 500 people out at events in Mishawaka and Kokomo. "The push-back isn't so much, 'you've done this' or 'you've done that,'– the push-back is, 'Joe, slow this train down. Make sure what's being done is being done right.'"
He acknowledged that Medicare spending was on a path that was "financially unsustainable" – yet in the next breath he assured the seniors that care would not be affected. "Is your coverage going to be changed? No. Are we going to set up death panels? No. You hear these things and I'm here to tell you that's not true."
He told them, "What I promise to you is I'll do what seems to be the most common sense thing to do. We don't work for the president. We don't work for a political party."
As for Obama, he said, "You may not agree with him but this guy is doing everything he can in his mind to do what he thinks is right. He's working non-stop."
As for the public option, he said, "We don't know right now whether there will be a public option."