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Focus | The political calculus on health-care reform for Warner, Webb

  
Story by Chris Graham
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Virginia’s two United States senators, within hours of each other earlier this week, were headlining efforts in the Senate aimed at impacting the health-care reform whirlwind winding up on Capitol Hill this December.

Mark Warner was first out of the gate on Tuesday with the coalition of moderate Democrats that he cobbled together to back a series of amendments to the health-reform bill pushing work with the public and private sectors on cost containment. Jim Webb upped the ante with the announcement that he had joined a group of 19 senators – a bipartisan group because it includes four Republicans, most notably Arizona Sen. John McCain – backing another amendment that would allow for the importation of lower-priced, Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs from other approved countries.

It’s a natural first instinct to react to this with the observation, Don’t think for a second that there aren’t politics involved in the moves of Warner and Webb, because as true to their centrist natures as they’re being here, particularly with Webb, who faces what is expected to be a tough re-election battle in 2012, political considerations have to be at the forefront on this most sensitive of issues.

Right? Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd, for one, isn’t so sure that’s the case.

“Webb has really made a conscious effort to stake out a position politically as an independent player, a person who focuses on the issues that he’s interested in, and doesn’t care what the party thinks he should be interested in. He has focused a lot on the military and military issues and prisons and that kind of thing. He’s staked out some territory, and that might be helpful to him, and so he might be able to say, I do what I think is right,” Kidd said.

Virginia Tomorrow founder and noted political analyst Bob Holsworth is of a similar mindset on Webb.

“Webb appears to me to be the kind of senator who doesn’t make electoral considerations the focus of his decisionmaking. I think he tries to decide what the best thing would be to do for the country, and then he’ll vote accordingly one way or the other. So he has in a number of instances gone along with the Obama administration on things that may not be all that popular, but on the other hand he’s been very critical at times of the Obama administration foreign policy,” Holsworth said.
“My thinking is that Webb, if he decides to run for re-election, is going to run as a senator who is an independent voice and who uses his judgment to try to reach the best decision for the country, and doesn’t try to simply respond to poll numbers that suggest whether or not people support a particular line of policy,” Holsworth said.

“His decision here is more likely to be based on a calculation of whether we’re better off having this health-care bill or not having than what it will do for his re-election chances in 2012,” Holsworth said.

Both agree that however Warner ends up voting on health-care reform, it will matter little to his political future, given that his next Senate election isn’t until 2014.

“It’s hard to imagine that a vote in 2009 or early 2010 is going to be a pivot point for Warner’s re-election opportunity in 2014,” Holsworth said. “He may feel some tension on the health-care vote, but it doesn’t have any immediate electoral repercussions for him. The issues that emerge by 2014 are likely to be fairly different from the ones that Obama is facing today.”

Kidd thinks it’s not all that likely that either will have much to fear simply from voters’ attitudes on health care. His thinking here involves Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell, who has signaled that if the reform that ends up passing gives states the option of opting out of participating in the public option that has been the source of much discussion the past few months, he would push for Virginia to exercise its right to opt out.

Kidd’s thinking is that the opt-out clause will have to be a part of the final package politically. A McDonnell-led opt-out then “takes the focus from Warner and Webb,” Kidd said, and presumably congressional Democrats in Virginia who vote for the reform as well, “because the focus will be on McDonnell and what he’s done and how what’s he done will impact Virginia.”

“Obviously if health-care reform in its implementation looks to be a disaster, then McDonnell will look to be smart, and there might be some criticism of Democrats for supporting it. But I don’t think it can be a disaster that quickly, because it’s going to be implemented over the next four years. So really I think the focus is going to be on the choice to opt out and the effects it will have, and there won’t be much to assess whether it’s good or bad as a policy,” Kidd said.

“And in the end, if in two years whatever health-care reform passes is getting panned, I think Democrats generally are going to be like swimming with lead weights on their feet. So it’s not going to be Webb, it’s going to be Democrats generally, from the top down,” Kidd said.

  

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