HOUGHTON - U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, spoke to an overflow crowd of hundreds at Michigan Technological University Thursday night in a town hall meeting dominated by talk of the health care bill.
The meeting was part of a week-long trek through the western Upper Peninsula.
Stupak faced criticism throughout the night, both from people angry at a bill they saw as encroaching on their freedom and from abortion-rights supporters upset at an amendment introduced by Stupak they say restricts women's ability to obtain abortions.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, talks to the crowd at a town hall event in Houghton Thursday night. The talk primarily centered on health care.
Stupak led off with a half-hour presentation on the health care bill, which he said would give 50,000 uninsured people in the 1st Congressional District access to health care.
Anyone who is happier with their current plan can stick with it, he said.
"Nobody's being forced into anything," he said. "It's your choice. You decide what you want."
The bill has put a national spotlight on Stupak, who introduced an amendment into the House bill that would stop women who receive federal insurance subsidies from buying abortion coverage. The amendment has been criticized for potentially making it more difficult for women to obtain coverage; however, Stupak said his language only maintains the existing federal prohibition on using federal funds for abortion.
A crowd member at the town hall asked Stupak if he would pledge to vote "no" on any bill with federal abortion funding.
"I'm continuing to speak with leadership. Hopefully we can get this issue worked out," Stupak said, getting a round of derisive clapping from some audience members.
Stupak said he does not make pledges.
"I'd be hard-pressed to vote for something with abortion funding in it," he said. "My record's pretty clear on right-to-life issues."
Another crowd member asked if Stupak's willingness to vote against the health care bill over abortion concerns was hypocritical. However, Stupak said similar language to his had already been included in two other bills that passed last year.
"Why are you making this the issue if you're concerned about 45,000 who die every year without health care?" he said.
One person asked if creating a level playing field for doctors would create a disincentive for doctors to go into the field.
Stupak said that wasn't the case, adding, "We want good doctors because we want quality-based care."
He said administrative costs would be reduced by 30 percent.
"That's a heck of a lot of money we could put into health care, and not paperwork," he said.
In a New York Times profile earlier this week, Stupak said he believed the bill could collapse for reasons independent of abortion. The reason, he said Thursday, "is called the Senate bill."
Stupak said he had heard from 20 House members, both anti-abortion and abortion rights, who said they would not support the Senate language.
During a Powerpoint presentation at the town hall meeting, Stupak outlined other differences between the House and Senate bills, most of which he said weakened the bill. The Senate bill removed the public option from the House bill. The Senate bill is estimated to reduce the deficit by less ($132 billion by 2019, to $138 billion for the House bill), covers fewer people (31 million uninsured versus 36 million). The funding source also differs: the House plan would include a tax on people making $500,000 or couples making $1 million, while the Senate plan includes a "Cadillac tax" on high-end health plans.
"If you're trying to make more people have health care, why would you tax the plan you're trying to get them to have?" Stupak said.
Stupak was also angered by perks given to Democratic senators who had been wavering on the bill.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Nebraska, became a last-minute supporter of allowing a vote on the health care bill after federal funding was added to cover the cost of Medicare expansion for Nebraska residents. (Thursday, Nelson said he had since asked leadership to extend the extra funding to all states.)
"National health care has to be a piece of legislation that passes on its merits, and the quality of the legislation - not who got the best deal." Stupak said during an interview Thursday. "I am disappointed, I am disillusioned with the Senate that they would even resort to those kind of tactics to get a bill."
Congressional leadership is expected to "ping-pong" the Senate legislation back to the House for a vote. If that happens, Stupak said, he doesn't see the House approving the Senate language.
"I can see a scenario where the Senate says, 'This is it, we can't do it," and then we in the House say 'Fine. Let's bring it up. We're going to vote it down. We'll let the Senate know we don't like it,'" he said. "And the leadership goes, 'Oh, we can't do that, we can't do that, that'd be an embarrassment.' No, it's the legislative process."
If the bill is voted down, Stupak said, it can be brought up again 30 days later.
Stupak thinks ultimately a health care bill will be passed, though he predicted it would take until at least early February.
On the economy, Stupak said the one-third of the stimulus money that has been spent so far has halted a free-fall. A study released this week by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute concluded the stimulus spending turned what would have been a 1 percent contraction in the economy last year into 3 percent growth.
But the recession is far from over, Stupak said.
"This isn't a quick in and out ... 2010 is still going to be a very rough year for employment and jobs," he said.
Another jobs bill passed the House in December, which provides $27.5 billion in fully-funded road projects in 2010. Stupak said the bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate when they return from recess.
In his interview Thursday, Stupak also talked about local projects such as White Pine Electric Power's retrofit of the power plant in L'Anse for biofuels.
"Not only did you put 30 people to work retrofitting that power plant into a modern biofuel plant, but now to grow and harvest the biofuels, you've spun off jobs," he said.
Stupak has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor of Michigan. Since Lt. Gov. John Cherry's decision this week not to seek the office, Stupak has received a barrage of calls and e-mails from long-time supporters asking him to consider a campaign, he said.
But Stupak said he is leaning against it, for several reasons. For one, he said, if Cherry was having trouble raising money, the same problem could apply to him. Stupak said his stance on abortion could also hurt him in a Democratic primary, though he acknowledged House Speaker Andy Dillon, another frequently mentioned candidate for governor, is also anti-abortion. It would also be hard to mount a statewide campaign and continue his work in Washington, Stupak said.
"I'm just not too sure I'm ready to say, 'OK, let's try a bigger challenge,'" he said during an interview Thursday afternoon. "I like my job. I'm happy with my job. I'm a chairman (of the House's Oversight and Investigations Committee). I don't know if I want to give up all that seniority and that in Washington. Am I not better off using that seniority and my influence in Washington to help the people of the 1st Congressional District? Is that more important than being governor? I think being a Congressman is more important right now, maybe."
However, he said he would have a clearer idea next week.
Before Thursday's town hall, Stupak met with Hancock Central High School students, and officials from B-H-K Child Development and Michigan Tech. His stops today will include visits with officials in Baraga County and the Oscar G. Johnson Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Iron Mountain.
Naomi Leukuma of Chassell said the town hall meeting was informative, but that Stupak's talk of continuing negotiations sidestepped the issue.
"We didn't get direct answers on the things people felt were important," she said.
Nick Bohmann of Houghton said while he had hoped for fewer questions on health care, he expected it.
"I thought there were some good questions asked, and I learned a fair amount about it," he said.
Garrett Neese can be reached at email@example.com.