After a year of heated national debate and decades of failed attempts to achieve universal health coverage, it was all coming down to one moment in the US House. The Democrats needed every vote they could get.
Smart money said the Massachusetts delegation was a lock. All 10 members had supported an earlier version that narrowly passed the House. They hailed from the same state that had crafted the landmark law which provided the template for health care reform, the home of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, who made universal coverage his life’s cause.
But Stephen F. Lynch, the South Boston Democrat now running for Senate, refused to get on board that week in March 2010. President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, old labor allies from Boston, and even Kennedy’s widow all tried to get Lynch to come around. He wouldn’t budge.
Three years later, Lynch’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act remains one of the better known moments of his Washington career, raising questions about his record. It hovers over his primary race against fellow Representative Edward J. Markey, who has called passage of sweeping health legislation “one of the most important votes of my career.”
Lynch said Democrats had made too many compromises in their determination to pass the bill. Liberal members shared some of his concerns, but they felt the achievement of insuring millions more Americans far outweighed the bill’s flaws. Some believed Lynch, considered the most conservative member of state’s delegation to the House, was merely bending to public criticism.
“It was a profile in both moral and political cowardice,” said Richard Kirsch, then the national campaign manager for the progressive coalition that urged Congress to pass the legislation.
Lynch, a former ironworker, had been hoping that labor could help him overcome some of Markey’s fund-raising and organizing advantages. But his vote on the health care bill has cost him some allegiance. And recent polling by progressive groups shows likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters would prefer a candidate who supported the health care act, making it a ripe subject for primary ads.
Lynch, though, has not hidden from his Affordable Care Act votes. He posted a video on his website this week calling attention to and explaining those votes. He spent 40 minutes detailing for the Globe what he saw as the major problems with the law, including the lack of a public option, and insufficient cost controls.
“I hope people understand that I try to be very thoughtful and deliberate, and try to take great care in their affairs, that I use due diligence,” he said. “I didn’t make everybody happy, but I certainly did what I thought was right.”
He added that he has upheld a promise he made to the president not to try and repeal the law.
Lynch’s core supporters say it was a principled stand and they have come to appreciate his critiques, particularly his opposition to a so-called “Cadillac” tax on the high-end plans that unions have fought to protect.
“He warned us about certain things, and we chose to ignore his warnings back then,” said Jay Hurley, president of the Ironworkers District Council of New England, an old friend who publicly criticized Lynch at the time but now endorses him for Senate. “You see it through a different prism [now].”
Yet supporters of the law found it galling that Lynch not only voted against it but also cited the abscence of a public option as one of his reasons, months after saying he harbored doubts about the option, a government-run plan to compete against private insurers.
The controversy surrounding Lynch’s health care stance began in the summer of 2009 as the national debate roiled. His reluctance to support the public option in particular got him booed off the stage at a Boston Common Labor Day health care rally.
Though Lynch was considered a likely candidate that fall in the race to succeed Kennedy, he stepped aside when unions that previously backed him voiced frustration with his position and moved to other candidates.
“Ted Kennedy doesn’t test the wind,” Mike Monahan, business manager for Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said back then. “He knows when something has to be done regardless of its popularity.”
By the time the bill came up for its first vote in the House that November, Lynch had come around, saying he had needed time to vet the 2,000 page document and assess each provision before deciding to vote yes.
He issued a press release after it narrowly passed, calling it an imperfect bill, but one that would still achieve “a noble goal.” Most importantly, he said, it would extend coverage to millions and prevent insurers from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. Continued...