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Idaho Congressman Hears from Constituents on Reform

August 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A Blue Dog Democrat congressman speaks with his Idaho constituents about the ongoing health care reform debate. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, an Idaho congressman goes home for the recess and gets feedback from his constituents about health care reform. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser has the story. The Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour correspondent: There’s nothing more exciting at the rodeo than bull and bronco riding. There’s also nothing more dangerous. Listen to cowboy Jake Hayworth.

JAKE HAYWORTH: Broke both legs, blown out a knee, shattered a foot, broke both ankles. I don’t know how many times I’ve broke ribs, fingers, dislocated both shoulders, and broke my neck twice.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It should come as no surprise that rodeo stars have a hard time getting health insurance. So the cowboys who competed in the big Caldwell, Idaho, night rodeo over the weekend were interested in what lawmakers in Washington are trying to do about health care reform.

Even though steer wrestler Austin Manning wants things to change, he’s concerned about some of the things he’s heard.

AUSTIN MANNING: I worry about everything they talk about, rationing of health care. I worry about adding so many people to the system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: First District Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick also went to the rodeo to meet and greet.

REP. WALT MINNICK, D-Idaho: Hi, ladies. I’m Walt Minnick. I’m your congressman.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He’s been going to events almost every day during this congressional recess to see what voters have on their minds. He’s also one of those 52 fiscal conservatives in the House who call themselves Blue Dog Democrats.

Minnick is only the second Democrat elected to Congress in this western Idaho district since 1966. It’s a huge area of the state that stretches all the way from Canada on the north to Nevada on the south.

Voters here overwhelmingly vote Republican. In last year’s presidential election, they went for Senator John McCain.

REP. WALT MINNICK: I’m Walt Minnick. How are you? Nice to meet you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Minnick was able to pull off a narrow victory over his Republican opponent by promising to be a centrist and a fiscal conservative. So far, he’s kept his promise.

Dan Popkey is the political reporter for the Idaho Statesman.

DAN POPKEY, The Idaho Statesman: He only votes with his party 40 percent of the time, and that’s the lowest in the Congress. He’s voted against the president’s budget. He’s voted against the stimulus. He’s voted against cap and trade. Those were fairly big votes, too, not as big as this.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The “this” Popkey is talking about is health care reform.

REP. WALT MINNICK: Is there anything, in terms of your experience…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in spite of his conservative voting record, Minnick could still be vulnerable next year. Already he’s been targeted for defeat by the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Minnick’s district is one of the most conservative in the country, fueled by voters who call themselves libertarians and independents, people who pride themselves on their distrust of big government. So a typical day for Minnick these days is chockfull of meetings with voters where he listens carefully.

IOWAN: Those insurance premiums are often two and three times higher than the average person makes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This day began with a breakfast meeting in suburban Boise with insurance agents and adjusters.

Slowing down the process

IOWAN: We're asking you to slow this down so we can make a good decision.

REP. WALT MINNICK: Well, I couldn't agree more with the suggestion we should slow it down and do it right.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Everywhere he went, Minnick heard that same message, including at the nonprofit Mercy Medical Center. Joe Messmer is the hospital's CEO.

JOE MESSMER, Mercy Medical Center: I would be the first to tell you that we need health care reform. I think we need it desperately. I think the system we have now is not working. Having said that, I wish we'd kind of slow down and take a look and make sure, you know, we don't do more harm than good.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the afternoon, a meeting with a group of Canyon County Republican state legislators.

DARRELL BOLZ, Republican state representative: The House has got a piece of legislation, but they haven't -- has it been passed?

REP. WALT MINNICK: No.

DARRELL BOLZ: OK.

REP. WALT MINNICK: We're going to go back to work on it starting in two weeks. And unless it gets changed, I won't vote for it. I'm not going to vote for a bill that worsens the deficit. Health care has got to pay for itself. And the problem with health care is not that we're spending not enough money; it's just we're not getting enough bang for the buck we are spending.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Then it was time for a stroll through downtown Caldwell, a city of 26,000, to talk with local businesspeople.

REP. WALT MINNICK: Is there anything that -- in terms of sort of short-term things that the federal government is doing that we either should do or shouldn't do or ought to do differently that...

WAYNE JOHNSON, small business owner: I'm scared to death of how government is spending our money. And I'm scared to death of this health bill.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wayne Johnson owns an angler shop. He says he would like to provide health insurance for his employees, but can't afford it. He's a Republican who voted for Minnick, and he doesn't like what he hears about the legislation taking shape in Washington.

WAYNE JOHNSON: Number one is, I don't think we can afford it. And, number two, is that there's not enough research going into this before they decide they want to take this bill and make it law.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: However, he is not opposed to health care reform.

WAYNE JOHNSON: Everybody knows -- at least people who are educated at all -- there needs to be some sort of health care reform. I definitely am in agreement with that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Minnick seems to be on the same page.

REP. WALT MINNICK: I share the principle that I want every American to have access to comprehensive, affordable health insurance. And for those that can't afford it, I want the government to make it possible financially for them to buy a policy, as well.

The president has expressed that goal. I think it's an admirable goal. It relies on the private sector to provide the insurance, and I think my thinking aligns with his.

Upsetting fellow Democrats

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But he says he will not vote for any bill that includes a public option, regardless of what the Democratic leadership wants.

REP. WALT MINNICK: I don't want the government running a new insurance plan in competition with private insurance plans. I think we'll get more -- we'll get a more competitive system, more consumer choice, and lower cost if the government sets the rules of the road for private insurance and then lets competition work.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Minnick has held that view for quite a while.

REP. WALT MINNICK: It's amazing how little we seem to understand about capitalism.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But listening to the folks back home seems to have hardened his position. As he has made his way through policy meetings and public appearances, he has repeated his opposition over and over, and that has angered some Democrats who worked hard to get him elected last year.

Mike Hoffman is a filmmaker who donated thousands of dollars to Minnick's campaign. He and Minnick had an awkward moment when they met and the congressman didn't recognize him at the rodeo.

MIKE HOFFMAN, film director: Do you not know who you're talking to?

REP. WALT MINNICK: No, I don't.

MIKE HOFFMAN: Mike Hoffman. We contributed...

REP. WALT MINNICK: Mike Hoffman. God, Mike, I apologize. I'm sorry. You're out of position.

MIKE HOFFMAN: That's OK.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Hoffman expected, when Minnick got to Washington, he would vote like a Democrat. Like many Idaho liberals, he feels let down.

MIKE HOFFMAN: I think Walt is an intelligent man. I think he's a good man. I've been surprised and disappointed by the way he's been voting. I don't understand it. And so, given that, I would have a hard time voting for him again.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What's been your biggest disappointment?

MIKE HOFFMAN: I think the health care, just because -- maybe it's because it's at the forefront of my mind. Maybe it's because it's what's in the news right now.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Minnick has at least three town hall meetings scheduled before he goes back to Washington. And whether the folks back home like what they hear about reform legislation or hate it, one thing's for certain: They're giving their congressman an earful.

RAY SUAREZ: Watch extended excerpts of Betty Ann's interview with Congressman Minnick on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org.