New Dem Lawmakers Feeling Heat on Health Care

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (AP)

Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (AP)

WASHINGTON - Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus is getting it from all sides on President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The Ohio Democrat opened his local newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, on Wednesday to find a giant ad urging him to vote against the bill -- featuring a photo of him with his two young daughters. Tea party protesters stormed his office and berated his staff.

On the other hand, he was heading to the White House Thursday to be wooed by Obama. And there was talk of Catholic nuns in his district organizing a candlelight vigil supporting the bill.

Of the few dozen House Democrats who could cast the deciding votes on health care, none are getting more pressure than the first- and second-term moderates like Driehaus who gave the Democratic Party control of Congress in the past two elections -- and whose fate in November could decide who's in charge next year.

While many of these lawmakers are the young, rising stars in the party, they also are often the most vulnerable. They lack the name recognition and political identity that long-term incumbency affords, and many represent swing districts that could easily shift to the right on Election Day.

Until now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has given them a long leash to vote in their own best interests, and many opposed the health care bill last November. But as Democrats scramble for votes -- and advocacy groups unleash furious lobbying campaigns -- the newcomers are coming under a spotlight like they've never seen.

Supporters of the bill are streaming into their offices one day, then tea party protesters the next. Their phone lines are jammed with calls. They've sat in the Oval Office and taken calls with Obama, or been locked in conversation with Pelosi on the House floor for long chunks of time.

In Pennsylvania, second-term Democrat Jason Altmire had airplanes flying over his district with banners urging him to vote against the bill. One district over, freshman Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper said she was outraged with an anti-overhaul television ad in her district that questioned her commitment to fighting cancer, even after she lost both her parents to the disease in the past month. The ad, run by a group called Americans for Prosperity, features a breast cancer survivor and suggests that she might not be alive under the new health care bill.

Others like freshman Rep. Mike McMahon, D-N.Y., have had local labor leaders relay the not-so-subtle hint that another vote against health care would cut them off from any election help this fall.

Driehaus, who is facing a tough re-election, said he was stunned when he saw the negative newspaper ad showing him with his two young girls. The Committee to Rethink Reform, the Washington advocacy group behind the ad, has since apologized, calling the photo a mistake.

Driehaus said the ad was indicative of hostility he's experienced on the issue, from angry town hall meetings to protesters yelling at his staffers.

"I just think the use of members' children is out of bounds," he said. "I just don't understand how they believe that's of benefit to their cause."

Driehaus says he's made his position clear to anyone who will listen, including fellow Democrats: He'll support the bill only if it includes a stronger prohibition on federal money being used to pay for abortion.

He's "happy to have a conversation" with the president, he said. But like others, he insists he won't be swayed by arm-twisting.

"I pay no attention to that," said Rep. Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, a two-term Democrat now running for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. "People sent me up here to study it 'til you bleed, read it 'til you bleed and then make the best decision based on what you learn up here."

Ellsworth said he's been getting plenty of calls, including one from Obama last week but still has reservations, including on abortion funding.

"I have to be able to put my head on the pillow at night and say I did it in good faith, and that this the best way to go," he said.

In an interview with ABC News Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden expressed sympathy with the position some lawmakers are in because of what he said were "misrepresentations" about the proposal.

He said his response to wavering moderates is that the "proof of the pudding is in the eating," suggesting that many fears about the bill would go away after it's enacted.