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In shift, Lynch will vote no on health bill

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 19, 2010
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WASHINGTON — Rebuffing personal pleas from President Obama and Vicki Kennedy, Representative Stephen F. Lynch said yesterday that he will vote against the Democrats’ health care overhaul, contending that it doesn’t put enough pressure on insurance companies to reduce costs.

The move is a shift for the South Boston Democrat, who voted in favor of the original House bill along with the rest of the Massachusetts delegation in November.

While not seen as fatal to the sweeping initiative, his defection makes it tougher for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team, who are cajoling individual representatives as they seek to win at least 216 commitments before Sunday’s anticipated vote.

It also illustrates the profound changes in the Massachusetts political landscape since last year’s death of Edward M. Kennedy, who built his career on efforts to expand health coverage, and the upset victory of Republican Scott Brown to fill Kennedy’s unexpired term in January. Brown won by opposing the overhaul.

But while Brown has opposed the health care bill on the grounds that it is too big and expensive, Lynch said he is opposed because the measure does not go far enough. “We’ve paid the ransom, but at the end of the day the insurance companies are still holding the hostages,’’ Lynch said in an interview with the Globe yesterday. “This is a very good bill for insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. It might be good for Nebraska, I don’t know. Or Florida residents. But it’s not good for the average American, and it’s not good for my district. Or for Massachusetts.’’

Lynch is the only member of the Massachusetts House delegation to oppose the legislation thus far. Several others, including Representative Michael E. Capuano, say they remain undecided. “I want to vote yes, but I am still not certain that this specific bill deserves my support,’’ Capuano said this week in an e-mail to supporters.

Lynch’s new position already received plaudits from Brown.

“I agree with Congressman Lynch, and I was pleased to hear that he will vote against this health care bill that is bad for Massachusetts,’’ Brown said in a statement.

The pressure on House members is intense. Lynch was summoned to the White House yesterday afternoon for a personal, 40-minute Oval Office meeting with the president. The former ironworker also received a call from his union’s president urging him to vote yes. Vicki Kennedy, widow of the senator, also spoke with Lynch.

When reminded yesterday of Senator Kennedy’s advice to not let the “perfect be the enemy of the good,’’ Lynch told reporters: “There’s a difference between compromise and surrender, right? And this is a complete surrender of all the things that people thought were important to health care reform.’’

After emerging late yesterday from the meeting with Obama, Lynch said he remained unconvinced. “I am still planning on voting against the bill,’’ Lynch said last night in an interview. “Look, he’s a very articulate and persuasive individual. He presented a very strong case for his side. And then I was given ample opportunity to discuss my own reservations and give my own’’ reasons for opposing the bill.

Lynch said he is strongly opposed to a measure, added by the Senate, to tax so-called Cadillac health insurance plans, even though House leaders substantially raised the thresholds for the tax in a bid to appease unions. Lynch also is disappointed, he said, that the final bill doesn’t allow states to adopt a government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers. The original House bill did contain a public, government-sponsored insurance option.

“The insurers still rule,’’ he said. “We’re just pumping subsidies into the current system, but that won’t drive down costs.’’

On a conference call with reporters yesterday, Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, praised the health care bill and said the union would strongly advocate for it. When asked directly about Lynch, however, he declined to criticize him and said the union would be lobbying all congressional members.

“We would hope he’d agree with us,’’ said Tim Sullivan, spokesman for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, “but we’re not at the last minute going to vilify him or anybody else.’’

Lynch downplayed any notion that Obama’s presidency could be irreparably damaged if his signature health care overhaul package is defeated. “This will not sink his presidency,’’ he said. “That fear is overstated.’’

He also deflected questions about his political future and whether he is seeking to appease angry voters as a way of setting himself up for a Senate bid in 2012. “These are questions for another day,’’ he said. “We have a lot of road to travel.’’

Lynch’s Massachusetts colleagues refrained from criticizing him. “There’s still more time to analyze the bill and to make the case,’’ said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat and the dean of the delegation, who plans to vote in favor of the bill. “The bill has just been completed. He should have the time to continue to analyze it.’’

“I disagree with him,’’ Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat, said in an interview. “But he’s pretty adamant about it.’’

Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat from Salem, said he is undecided, and is studying the new language. But there were few indications he would decide to vote against the bill.

Others have said they plan to vote in favor, including Representatives Richard E. Neal of Springfield; James P. McGovern of Worcester; John W. Olver of Amherst; William D. Delahunt of Quincy; and Niki Tsongas of Lowell.

Lynch said it is wrong for House Democrats to consider a process in which they would “deem’’ the Senate bill passed as they approve a package of budget resolution compromises, instead of voting separately and directly on the Senate bill itself.

Pelosi, asked about Lynch’s criticism of the process she was pursuing, brushed it off. Then — without naming Lynch — she launched into an assault on opponents of the bill.

“The poisoning of the well that you see is, again, the lengths to which the other side — the insurance companies —will go. They will do anything to stop this legislation,’’ she said.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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