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Health Reform a Big Campaign Plank for Congressional Challengers

April 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the first of two reports on the implications of the new health reform law for members of Congress this election season, Spencer Michels reports from California on how Republican challengers are making reform a key issue ahead of November.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: reaction to the new health care law from voters.

This week, our correspondents spent time with two members of Congress who went home during the spring recess.

Tonight, “NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels reports from California.

SPENCER MICHELS: The old gold mining town of Rough and Ready lies in the heart of one of California’s most conservative congressional districts.

In these parts, health care reform is a hot topic. Republican Tom McClintock, who represented a Southern California district in the state legislature, today represents this Northern California district in Congress, winning a close race in 2008.

Home from Washington, the congressman traveled to Rough and Ready’s Grange Hall to see what his constituents were thinking about the new health care reform law, and to explain his own opposition to it.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK, R-Calif.: Let me just get a straw poll here. How many of you are in favor of the bill that just passed the Congress and was signed into law? OK. OK. And how many of you are opposed to it? OK. Well, that’s pretty much the reaction we are getting all across the district.

SPENCER MICHELS: McClintock’s district runs from suburban Sacramento, east to Lake Tahoe, and north to the Oregon border. It’s mostly rural, growing fast. Republicans outnumber Democrats by 15 percent, though the gap is getting smaller, as more people move here.

At the town hall meeting, he attacked the new health care law for requiring people to have health insurance and because, he says, insuring those without insurance will cost too much.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK: The notion that, somehow, we can provide free health insurance for 32 million people without adding to the deficit or costing taxpayers is simply absurd.

SPENCER MICHELS: Audience members, many on Medicare, were concerned that provisions in the new law designed to cut wasteful spending in Medicare could actually cut their benefits.

MAN: So, where does that leave the people — and there’s a fair majority in this room — that will be affected by this? Where does that leave them?

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK: As a matter of simple practical fact, they are not going to cut a half-a-trillion dollars out of the Medicare system, because the Medicare system cannot begin to bear such a cut. What they are going to do is take it out of the — the national treasury, which means out of your pocket as a taxpayer.

SPENCER MICHELS: McClintock says he’s encouraged by what he’s been hearing from his constituents.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK: The first town hall that I did was in August. And I would say the audience split about 25 percent in favor of Obamacare and about 75 percent opposed.

As the summer entered the fall, those numbers in support of the Obama plan dwindled to the point that, as you saw today, we had one or two people in support and everybody else in opposition.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rough and Ready residents Don and Edith Davis were part of that opposition. They said they feared a government health czar would deny them medical treatment, even though the law has no such czar, and proponents say it won’t deny treatment.

EDITH DAVIS, Health Care Reform Opponent: Don has had two knee replacements. I immediately thought, when health care passed, thank God he has them now, because, when the Obama health care comes into, you know, being, would he, by some health czar in Washington say, uh-uh, he’s too old; we can’t spend that kind of money?

SPENCER MICHELS: This wasn’t the first time that residents of Rough and Ready have been frustrated with government. In 1850, Rough and Ready seceded from the Union over taxes on gold mining. Four months later, they rejoined the Union.

This time, it appears the divide over health care reform won’t heal that quickly. There are plenty of reform supporters, even in this Republican district. At an urgent care clinic in nearby Grass Valley, director Dr. Roger Hicks said he sent e-mails and called McClintock’s office during the health care debate, and received no response.

At the clinic, he says, he gets a different sampling of opinion than the congressman does. One-third of his patients are uninsured.

DR. ROGER HICKS, Yuba Docs Urgent Care: Ninety-nine out of 100 of the people that I talk to here are in favor of this health care reform. And I talk to everybody about it, because it comes up frequently when I’m seeing patients. You know, I say, well, this is what you need. You need this test. And they say, well, I can’t afford it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hicks is convinced the new law will make a difference.

DR. ROGER HICKS: It is going to change, because 32 million people that were uninsured are now going to have insurance. So, you know, they won’t be making decisions about whether they should go to the hospital because of their chest pain based on money.

SPENCER MICHELS: Dr. Hicks says he is also a small business man, and health reform will save him money with tax credits for insurance premiums.

But, at the nearby Nevada County Contractors Association, Congressman McClintock talked with builders who didn’t share that optimism.

BRUCE IVY, California: You know, the cost of health care is so uncertain, it’s created a lot of angst and anxiety out in the community.

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK: Yes.

BRUCE IVY: A lot of our clients are holding back making investments because they just don’t have security in what’s going to come down. And what we saw happen in Washington, D.C., was disheartening.

DANIEL SWARTZENDRUBER, California: So what is your outlook on how the health care situation is going to affect the elections here come next November?

REP. TOM MCCLINTOCK: Republicans are going to get a second chance. And Republicans are beginning to realize, this time, we have got to be worthy of it.

Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.

SPENCER MICHELS: McClintock is facing a poorly financed opponent in the Republican primary and a little-known Democrat in November. Based on what he’s seen and heard this week, he believes his constituents support his position on the new health care law. And that, he thinks, can only help him win reelection.