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Health care at center of US Senate race

By Michael Rezendes
Globe Staff / September 12, 2009

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As a growing field emerges in the race to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s US Senate seat, the white-hot debate over the nation’s health care system is already shaping up to be a defining issue in the Democratic primary campaign.

With three months to make their case to Massachusetts voters, the declared and prospective candidates are staking out varied positions at a time when President Obama is moving aggressively into the final stage of his push for a major health care overhaul - the most pressing issue facing Congress this year.

US Representative Michael Capuano, who plans to announce soon, expresses strong support for liberal priorities, including a so-called public option - a government insurance plan that would compete with the private sector - and a requirement that employers cover their workers.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, the first major contender to formally announce her candidacy for the Democratic primary, is standing behind a government insurance option while appearing to tread more cautiously on the question of an employer requirement, which could force employers over a certain size to offer health insurance to workers or face financial penalties.

“The employer mandate has worked well in Massachusetts and I would support its consideration as part of a federal health care reform package,’’ she said in a statement.

And US Representative Stephen Lynch is holding fast to his refusal to announce a position on either of those items, provoking continued anger from labor leaders who shunned him during a key Labor Day breakfast.

Lynch’s wait-and-see stance suggests he may seek to position himself as the lone conservative in a crowded Dec. 8 Democratic primary - a move that could separate him from the pack. If he faces three or four contenders who divide the state’s liberal voters among themselves, Lynch could prevail by garnering most of the state’s moderate to conservative Democrats, including the so-called Reagan Democrats concentrated in his South Boston neighborhood.

“If it’s a political strategy, that’s it - being a little bit more conservative,’’ said Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which plans to hold a competitive endorsement process in the race. “If he holds those positions, he’s out of line with his union brothers and sisters.’’

Lynch, a onetime iron worker who plans to launch a bid for Kennedy’s seat any day, has had strong labor support in the past, but has often taken a more conservative approach than other members of the state’s congressional delegation on a variety of issues, including abortion rights, which he opposes, and a 2006 Republican resolution supporting President George W. Bush’s policies in Iraq, which he supported. In a Globe interview, Lynch said there is nothing political about his decision to wait for a final health care bill to emerge from five House and Senate committees before taking a stand.

“People are trying to get me to sign pledges, but because the situation is so fluid I’ve been insisting on the right to see the legislation before I make a commitment,’’ he said. “I consider myself a common-sense Democrat and I think issues - especially big ones like this - require measured approaches to find the best solution.’’

At the same time, Lynch appears to be walking a fine line, declining to lend conceptual support to the public option or employer mandate while expressing admiration for Obama, paying his respects to Kennedy, and insisting he favors a health care overhaul.

At a recent community forum in Milton, Lynch said, “The goal of universal coverage is a noble one and something that is entirely consistent with the principles our country was built on . . . The question is the construct that we’re building and this bill - is that going to get us where we need to go?’’

And in his interview with the Globe, Lynch said: “I give credit to the president. He has brought this issue to a head. He told people he was going to be the candidate for change and this is monumental change.’’

Lynch’s cautious approach on health care comes after a month of often-vitriolic public debate on the issue - and on the cusp of a major effort by Obama to push Congress toward an agreement. In an often-pointed speech before a joint session of Congress Wednesday night, Obama took on some of his critics, accusing them of using “scare tactics,’’ and proclaiming that “the time for bickering is over.’’

In the Republican Senate primary, the field is still forming, although state Senator Scott Brown of Wrentham is considering a run after Andrew Card dropped out last night. The health care debate, which has already emerged as a factor on the Democratic side, could be a factor in the Republican primary as well.

Capuano, a Somerville Democrat expected to announce his candidacy shortly, has expressed unreserved support not just for a government health insurance option, but a significant one.

“I am a very strong proponent of a robust public plan, not just any public plan,’’ he said in an interview.

“I don’t know any better way to limit the cost of health care, and keeping costs reasonable is what it’s all about.’’

Another Democrat considering running, Alan Khazei, a cofounder of City Year, the nationwide community service program for young adults, declined to discuss his views on health care, saying, “I’ll be ready to give statements if I get into the race.’’

Lynch fueled the notion that he may be moving to differentiate himself in the primary field over the Labor Day weekend, when labor leaders irked by his health care stance barred him from speaking at the annual Greater Boston Labor Council breakfast.

“I think he got a reception he liked, because he is trying to run a moderate to conservative campaign,’’ said Dan Payne, a veteran Democratic media consultant.

Whatever his motivations, Lynch is making clear he wants to chart his own course in the health care debate, even suggesting that Congressional leaders and Obama might be better off taking a more incremental approach. “There is an argument that it’s this grand bargain, this total overhaul, that is hurting our chances of getting any change,’’ he said.

Andrea Estes of the Globe staff contributed to this story; Michael Rezendes can be reached at rezendes@globe.com.

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