Valley Democrats pushed to decide on health care

WASHINGTON — Public and private pressure is building on Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and other lawmakers who say they are undecided on a big health care bill expected to be voted on this weekend. That's the price of wait-and-see.

E-mails are piling up. Phone lines are crashing. Republicans and unions are running competing ads. Fox News and the Drudge Report are retailing GOP rumors, and constituents on all sides of the issue are getting impatient.

"It seems to me they want to be the No. 1 holdout," said Carolyn Jensen, a 69-year-old Modesto resident who called Cardoza's office this week. "I don't understand why he wouldn't want to vote for this."

Jensen is a mother of three, as well as the chief care provider for her elderly mother. She supports the Democrats' $940 billion health care package, and felt motivated this week to urge Cardoza to do the same. Conveying the message proved complicated, though, as Capitol Hill office lines have been jammed.

As many as 40,000 calls an hour have swamped the House of Representatives' switchboard, coinciding with talk show host Rush Limbaugh's pleas and posting of phone numbers starting Tuesday. Lawmakers say the outpouring exceeds anything they've seen on other issues.

"This is orders of magnitude more," Cardoza said Thursday.

Sidewalks and airwaves, too, have been congested. The National Republican Congressional Committee this week began airing cable TV ads targeting Cardoza. The Service Employees International Union has been running San Joaquin Valley ads promoting the bill. Thursday, about 20 supporters of health care reform and a smaller group of opponents demonstrated outside Cardoza's office in downtown Modesto.

"What's going to move me to make my final decision is to read the final language," Cardoza said. "This is a case of trust but verify."

Democratic colleague Jim Costa of Fresno added that he, too, must "see the language" before making his final decision. Tellingly, though, he and Cardoza emphatically praised a Congressional Budget Office assessment released Thursday that estimated the bill could cut the federal deficit by $130 billion over the next 10 years.

"It's a good score," Costa said.

The 2,310-page bill and accompanying 1,345-page committee report were posted online midafternoon Thursday at The House expects to vote on the package Sunday.

Democratic leaders need 216 votes to pass the bill, because there are several House vacancies. No Republican is expected to support it. Depending upon who is counting, Democrats as of Thursday afternoon had momentum but still were roughly eight votes short of victory.

In this tense environment, many conversations are occurring at once.

Cardoza, for instance, said he expects to be talking again to President Barack Obama before he votes. Costa on Thursday convened several conference calls to discuss the bill a final time with health care professionals and others in his congressional district.

"I'm going to listen to them," Costa said.

Some tactics resemble flash-bang grenades, loud and distracting but not very lethal.

Many of the calls flooding Cardoza's and Costa's offices are coming from callers who don't live in the San Joaquin Valley. For House members, out-of-district callers count far, far less than constituents.

California Republicans are peddling the story line that Cardoza and Costa will support the bill in exchange for the Interior Department's announcement earlier this week that San Joaquin Valley irrigation deliveries will be increased.

"I'm guessing those events are closely linked," Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity declared Wednesday night, while the screen text under a picture of Costa and Cardoza asked, "Were (California) congressmen bribed with water provision?"

Bribery is a specific crime. It is a felony, distinct from the traditional horse trading and favor granting that lubricates legislation. Fox presented no evidence of criminal behavior.

Costa and Cardoza, in any event, discounted any connection between their health care votes and the Interior Department having advanced its planned water delivery announcement by two weeks. Costa noted that California lawmakers had asked the Interior Department to speed its water decisions in mid-February.

"This is the season of not telling the truth," Cardoza said.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.