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On health care anniversary, ousted Democrats reflect on fight


Two years ago today President Obama signed the health care reform act into law, leading up to one of the most intense votes in the history of Congress.

Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi worked furiously to gather the necessary votes – all from Democrats – to pass the unpopular Senate version of Obama’s top domestic priority through the House. Democrats had just lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate thanks to the election of Scott Brown in a Massachusetts Senate special election, giving them no choice but to pass the Senate bill.

It was late winter in 2010, and centrist Democrats from politically divided swing states were on the spot, Pelosi and Obama both pleading for their support, lest the controversial bill die in Congress.

Two votes they targeted were freshman Reps. Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye, from the purple state of Virginia. After being coy for weeks prior to the vote, Perriello would eventually support the legislation, though Nye would not.

They would both lose their re-election bids in 2010, an election cycle defined by Republican-fueled backlash against the new law.

Two years later, both Perriello and Nye –although they took opposite sides on the legislation – agree in arguing that the law was never properly debated; they say the heat of the moment hijacked thoughtful consideration of the bill.
While there are popular elements of the health care plan, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 42 percent of Americans would like to see the entire law repealed.

Perriello and Nye have since rebounded from their losses and are both still involved in politics. Perriello works for the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. Nye, a former foreign service officer is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. NBC News reached out to both men to ask for their recollections of one of the most hotly contested pieces of legislation in years.

Perriello was quick to say he had no regrets about his vote , saying: “It was the right thing to do, 85 million people now get free preventative care, 2.5 million young adults can now stay on their parents plan until they’re 26. You can see it’s already starting to work.”

Democrats had grumbled during the fight in Congress over the law that their party’s messaging effort was suspect at best. Perriello said the rhetoric of the battle shifted the discussion away from cost and delivery – the crux of the issue, in his view – and toward the bill’s political ramifications. He conceded the vote probably hurt him in his bid for a second term, but he asserted he was “done in more by the bad economy than anything else.”

The spring of 2010 was one of the more charged political environments in recent congressional memory. Tea Party groups on the right and liberal groups on the left staged massive rallies on Capitol Hill, and members of Congress received death threats over the health care law.  In one instance, Perriello’s brother discovered his gas line had been cut during the middle of the day in an act of vandalism, according to Albemarle County Fire Marshal’s Office

Like Perriello, Nye blames a vitriolic atmosphere surrounding the debate for suppressing any discussion about substance.

 “It was a very complicated bill,” he said. “There were elements that I liked but the debate grew so heated that we could no longer have a reasonable discussion about effective change.”

Nye still has no regrets about “voting no with my constituents” but said he regrets that “the debate showcased deep divisions in the country that made people extremely distrustful of government.”

Nye agreed that the poor economy was probably the biggest single factor in his losing re-election; however, he said a failure of messaging on the healthcare issue by Democratic leaders significantly hurt the party’s prospects in 2010.

“People were saying that the health care law was socialism. However, if you vote against an individual mandate, you’re essentially saying that you the individual are not responsible for your health and instead it should be left up to the state. They [Democratic leaders] never effectively made that point, that the mandate empowered the individual more than the state. It really hurt us,” he said.

Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about the constitutionality of the health care law. The debate is starting to resurface but the intense vitriol of the spring of 2010, as of now, does not seem to be making a return.

There’s still aggressive messaging surrounding the law, though, and it’s a centerpiece of this year’s presidential campaign.

A super PAC affiliated with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), for instance, produced a new web video today depicting “Uncle Sam” going to the doctor’s office with a doctor sternly saying, “You’re living on borrowed time. Get rid of Obamacare.”

And the Department of Health and Human Services, the cabinet office in charge of carrying out most of the health care law, is up with a separate video that’s heavy on human emotion and light on stats and figures. Labeling their campaign as the “MyCare” series, the HHS ad portrays the stories of three women whose lives have benefited from the health care law.