For a healthcare holdout, it’s lonely in the middle

As one of the few senators undecided on healthcare reform, Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln faces a huge headache. Liberals attack her as an obstructionist, even though she cast a key vote keeping the effort alive. Republicans are lining up to run against her -- seven, so far, and counting.

The voters here at home seem conflicted, if not downright confused.

Take Jim Havens. He greeted Lincoln with a warm embrace when she showed up at the University of Central Arkansas for a service honoring veterans; his late brother was a family friend. Moments later, as Lincoln sat on stage, the 73-year-old state employee related his frustrations with the healthcare system: the struggle to cover his wife before Medicare kicked in, the exclusions that made her expensive policy barely worth the cost.

“What we got is broken,” Havens said. But, he quickly added, “what I don’t think we need to do is rush to fix it and make things even worse.”

It once seemed that passing a healthcare bill would be, if not easy, at least not as hard as it has been for Democrats, who continued bickering Sunday even after pushing legislation to the Senate floor. They hold the White House, have a sizable majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate: 58 Democrats and two independents who typically vote with the party.

But those numbers fail to account for the message that some lawmakers are receiving from voters like Havens.

“There’s lots of diversity as Democrats,” Lincoln said during a recent home visit, as the telephones in her Little Rock office rang nonstop. “People have to realize that in that diversity there’s differences and those differences have to be respected. You can’t just draw a line in the sand and say, ‘As Democrats, this is what we have to be for.’ ”

With Senate Republicans apparently in solid opposition, Democrats need every one of their members and both independents to prevent a GOP filibuster and pass healthcare legislation. The House approved its version by a narrow 220 to 215.

At this time, however, Senate Democrats are shy of the 60 votes they need. Those balking include independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Democrats Lincoln, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Each voted Saturday to advance the bill for debate starting next week. Lincoln was the last to commit. But none is assured of supporting the legislation on final passage.

Several issued statements Sunday criticizing the measure and vowed to change it, or else. “I don’t think anyone thinks this bill will pass as it is,” Lieberman said on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”

Of the holdouts, Lincoln may be the most politically vulnerable. “She’s getting it from both sides,” said Carmie Henry, a Democratic veteran of Arkansas politics.

Unhappy with her fence-sitting, the liberal group has targeted Lincoln with demonstrations, radio spots and mailers urging her to support the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private companies. TV ads are set to begin Monday.

Perhaps more worrisome, one and possibly two Democrats may jump into the primary and challenge Lincoln from the left. Republicans, meantime, have pounded Lincoln almost daily in news releases and Internet advertising.

A big part of Lincoln’s problem is President Obama. He lost Arkansas by 20 percentage points -- one of his worst showings in the country -- and the combination of a bad economy and the steps taken to fight the downturn have done little to improve Obama’s standing.

“All these stimulus packages he’s put forward and all these loans, where’s the benefit for us?” said Paul Hamick, 25, a laid-off home-care worker in Russellville.

As Lincoln rolled by in a parade, tossing candy from the back of a white Ford pickup, he waved politely. But he won’t be happy if she backs the president on healthcare.

“Our country’s already in debt billions and billions of dollars,” Hamick said. “We don’t need more debt.” Actually, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate’s healthcare bill would reduce the federal deficit by $130 billion over 10 years.

Lincoln delicately acknowledged the difficulty Obama presents her in 2010. “People’s expectations have been heightened,” she said. “You’re the first thing between those expectations and results, so it’s going to be a tough year.”

But it’s not just Republicans or the state’s large bloc of conservative-leaning independent voters whom Lincoln has to worry about. Democrats still dominate Arkansas politics at the state and local levels, holding the governor’s office, big majorities in the Legislature and five of six congressional seats. Some are angry Lincoln has not been more loyal to the president.

“What I keep hearing is she needs to form up on the Democratic side,” said Havens, who, despite his doubts about the healthcare proposal, is sympathetic to the notion. “People say, ‘We expect Blanche to be a Democrat. That’s why we elected her and she should vote like one.’ ”

Lincoln is hardly complacent. She has increased her visibility around the state, amid griping she was rarely seen outside of election season, and has already raised as much money, $5.8 million, as she spent on her entire 2004 reelection bid.

A reshuffling after the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in August resulted in Lincoln’s elevation to chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, a political plum in this heavily rural state.

She is a relative moderate, who broke with most Democrats to back the Iraq war, pass President Bush’s 2001 tax cuts and impose limits on late-term abortion. Though not a rousing orator, Lincoln is a sprightly campaigner, quick with a smile, hug or handshake. She makes easy conversation, whether discussing outdoor vacations with a group of conservationists, or bantering about her spaghetti recipe with kitchen staffers at a school for the handicapped.

But there is no getting around the healthcare issue.

She touts the compromise bill she helped fashion in the Senate Finance Committee, offering subsidies to extend health coverage to tens of millions of Americans and consumer protections for people with preexisting conditions. That bill contained no public option. But the version now pending before the Senate, which was assembled by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid from competing proposals, does.

After equivocating, Lincoln came out against the idea, even with a provision allowing states to opt out. As federal taxpayers, she said, Arkansans would be “on the hook” for any costs regardless of the state’s participation.

Public opinion polls don’t offer much guidance. A poll commissioned by supporters of the public option showed strong support; a survey financed by foes of the Senate legislation found strong opposition to the bill. A nonpartisan poll conducted by the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville found 39% supported the public option and nearly half were opposed.

True to her moderate leanings, Lincoln talks of incremental change. She noted that many of the uninsured in Arkansas -- about 500,000, or roughly 1 in 6 -- could be covered under existing programs, such as Medicare, if they just signed up. “I have a problem with trying to re-create the wheel,” Lincoln said.

Besides, she said, it will take years to overhaul the healthcare system.

Lincoln said people might have thought, “With the new president in there, we’re going to be able to take a pill, wake up tomorrow and it’s all going to be solved.

“Well, it’s not.”

And there is 2010 to think about.

Leaving a Veterans Day celebration at the state Capitol, Lincoln was stopped by Carl Schmidt, 70, a Navy retiree who expressed concern that his Medicare and military benefits would be cut to help pay for the uninsured. Schmidt towered over Lincoln, who assured him his health insurance was safe.

“We’ll be watching your vote,” he said, as Lincoln patted his shoulder and turned away.

“I expect that,” she replied.