Owens, Now, Comes Out for the Health Care Bill

owens enters Owens, Now, Comes Out for the Health Care BillALBANY—Bill Owens, who is being sworn in as a member of Congress today, has announced his intention to vote for the health care restructuring bill backed by Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama. He resisted taking a specific position on the issue throughout his campaign.

Owens announced the vote in a press release and suggested as much in Watertown yesterday. He just concluded a special election campaign against Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman, but never got specific about how he would vote on many of the healthcare proposals that were floating through, including H.R. 3962, which could be voted on Saturday.

“During his campaign for Congress, Owens showed consistent support for legislation that would end pre-existing condition exclusions, reign in spending, protect small businesses and keep middle-class taxes low,” the press release says. (They probably meant “rein in.” Anyway.)

When I first talked to Owens on the night of his nomination, he told me he was against a public option for healthcare (then laid out his four criteria). A week later, Owens was endorsed by the union SEIU 1199, whose political director Kevin Finnegan told me “his position is a little more nuanced than that.” Finnegan said the union picked Owens because he would work with the president.

A few weeks later, after Barack Obama gave a speech to Congress about the issue, I called Owens for his reaction, and again asked him about health care. He refused to be specific about the public option, and referred to the four principles above: “I don’t want to apply a litmus test, I don’t want to apply a label. I want to be able to analyze the information and the bill and come to a conclusion,” he said then.

Nancy Pelosi unveiled the bill members will vote on Oct. 29; the same night as a televised debate in Syracuse. Owens hinted then he could support the House bill.

“The bills were changing so rapidly prior to that, and I suspect will continue to change,” he told reporters the next day in Watertown, noting he had bill language to analyze. “I’m going to measure my view of any legislation that I will vote on based on the four criteria that I talked about for a couple of months now.”

Now, after the election and after he was sworn in: “This legislation will reform the insurance industry and provide increased access to affordable healthcare without taxing healthcare benefits, cutting Medicare benefits or raising taxes on the middle class, and that is exactly the direction we need to go,” Owens said. “There are still changes I would like to make, including raising the payroll exemption for small businesses, but like I said last week, there is a fundamental need for reform and we must act with a sense of urgency. This plan will reign in costs, strengthen the middle class and protect our economy from additional debt down the road.”

Republicans were never able to specifically attack Owens on this issue, as they have attacked other House members. And with an internecine fight between the Republican and Conservative candidates, the issue faded to the background in the final days of the campaign.

“You have to really look hard to say that he said anything about anything. Everyone was so transfixed with Dede and Hoffman,” said Jim Ellis, the Franklin County Republican chairman. “I don’t think people who are voters in the North Country are in favor of card check, and they’re not in favor of the public health care option, and they’re not in favor of Nancy Pelosi. He’s going to stand up and be a little tutu for Nancy Pelosi. We’ll see it tomorrow.”

Four other upstate Democrats are not clear supporters of the issue: Eric Massa says he will vote no, and Mike Arcuri, Scott Murphy and Dan Maffei have not taken public positions.