Without uttering the phrase “health care,” U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler told a throng of his youngest constituents that he voted against his party on the landmark legislation passed last Saturday.
Chandler spoke to fifth-graders at Elkhorn Elementary School Thursday, bringing along with him dozens of pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution.
He told the students that President Barack Obama urged him to vote in favor of a piece of legislation last week.
“I ended up not being able to vote the way he wanted me to, but he was OK with it because I had supported him on lots of other things,” he said.
“It’s very important not to get mad when someone doesn’t agree with you, because there will always be another vote. There will always be another issue that will come down the road that you need to work together on.”
The kids didn’t ask him what the vote was about – they were more interested in Obama’s basketball skills anyway. (Chandler told them he’d try to get the president to play a pickup game with the University of Kentucky Wildcats.)
But he spoke with The State Journal about his vote against the health care bill, which passed 220-215.
Chandler was one of 39 Democrats who voted against the measure, and that has angered some of his constituents in Kentucky’s sixth district.
“I was deeply concerned about the cost of the program,” he said, as the kids filed out of the school library to board their buses home.
“It was $1.2 trillion, which is just quite a lot of money to spend.”
Chandler worried that the legislation wouldn’t actually save money, and it could increase expenses for small businesses. He says he was looking for a bill that would control the “burgeoning cost of health care.”
“What we need to do is reduce the cost of health care – we don’t need to increase the cost,” he said.
“It looked to me like small businesses were looking at a cost increase as a result of this bill, which would have meant a loss of employment.
“That’s another thing we don’t need right now, is to lose more jobs when the economy is suffering.”
In its current form, Chandler says the bill puts rural hospitals at risk of losing funding from Medicare and Medicaid.
“There are communities in this district that could potentially lose their hospitals, and I was concerned about that,” he said.
“The hospital here in Frankfort, I think was implicated, and would have lost a great deal of support.”
Chandler voted in favor of an amendment to the bill that would prohibit a government-run insurance plan from covering abortions except in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother’s life.
The Associated Press reports that the Stupak Amendment also bars any health plan receiving federal subsidies in a new insurance marketplace from offering abortion coverage. If women wanted to purchase abortion coverage through such plans, they’d have to buy it separately, as a so-called rider on their policy.
“I support a woman’s right to choose, I support Roe v. Wade – I’m not for repealing that,” Chandler said.
“But I have been fairly consistent on the expenditure of public money for abortions, and I have generally been against that.”
The amendment’s proponents say the goal is to ensure that a longstanding ban on using federal dollars for elective abortions continues under the new health care legislation.
Abortion-rights advocates say it would make it harder for millions of women to have health insurance that covers abortion. They depict it as an assault on American women’s reproductive rights.
“There is a dispute about the effect of it, and I think that’s still being disputed by both sides,” Chandler said, adding that some say it goes further than the current ban on federally funded abortions.
“I don’t think it affects private plans,” he said. “I think there are those who think that it does.”
Chandler says his overall position on abortion doesn’t satisfy his constituents on either side of the debate.
“The Right to Life people don’t like my position, and the pro-choice people don’t either. So I just try to call it as best I can in the middle – that’s just how I see the issue.
“I think it ought to be legal and rare. I think we should try to limit the number of abortions to the best of our ability, but I don’t think that we ought to prevent a woman from getting an abortion,” he continued.
“If circumstances call for it, it’s between her and her doctor and her maker.”
But none of these issues came up during Chandler’s talk with the fifth-graders. He told them he tries to balance what his constituents want with what he thinks is the right thing to do.
“The main power I have is the ability to cast my vote on very important matters that our country is facing, on behalf of the people in central Kentucky,” he said.
They talked about his career in state and federal government, his travels abroad and his family – including their three cats and four dogs.
He encouraged them to read often and work together, and if they must disagree with each other, to do so with respect.
Central Kentucky’s youngsters had some requests of their own for the congressman.
They asked him to tell the president hello from Elkhorn Elementary, and to fund an outdoor classroom at their school.
He said his Green Schools bill – passed twice in the House, but never in the Senate – could help with eco-friendly projects like that one.
The bill would put several billion dollars into school construction, with the focus of renovating older buildings with solar panels and geothermal heating systems to make them more energy efficient.
“It also puts people to work, and goodness knows we need it,” he said. “And those are jobs that cannot be exported.”
On Tuesday, Republican Andy Barr announced that he intends to run for Chandler’s seat in the House. The Lexington lawyer said he wants to help stop “the out of control spending” in Washington.
Chandler didn’t have much to say yet about his 2010 opponent.
“I’m used to it – it’s nothing new,” he said. “I’ve had opponents every time I’ve run for Congress, so I’ll just treat it the same way I always have.
“I’m proud to represent the people of central Kentucky, and I hope that they will give me another chance to continue to do that,” he said.
“I am deeply grateful to them for the chance they’ve given me.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.