After a year of heated national debate and decades of failed attempts to achieve universal health coverage, it was all coming down to one moment in the US House. The Democrats needed every vote they could get.
Smart money said the Massachusetts delegation was a lock. All 10 members had supported an earlier version that narrowly passed the House. They hailed from the same state that had crafted the landmark law which provided the template for health care reform, the home of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, who made universal coverage his life’s cause.
But Stephen F. Lynch, the South Boston Democrat now running for Senate, refused to get on board that week in March 2010. President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, old labor allies from Boston, and even Kennedy’s widow all tried to get Lynch to come around. He wouldn’t budge.
Three years later, Lynch’s opposition to the Affordable Care Act remains one of the better known moments of his Washington career, raising questions about his record. It hovers over his primary race against fellow Representative Edward J. Markey, who has called passage of sweeping health legislation “one of the most important votes of my career.”
Lynch said Democrats had made too many compromises in their determination to pass the bill. Liberal members shared some of his concerns, but they felt the achievement of insuring millions more Americans far outweighed the bill’s flaws. Some believed Lynch, considered the most conservative member of state’s delegation to the House, was merely bending to public criticism.
“It was a profile in both moral and political cowardice,” said Richard Kirsch, then the national campaign manager for the progressive coalition that urged Congress to pass the legislation.
With the Senate primary race now in full swing, Lynch, a former ironworker, had been hoping labor could help him overcome some of Markey’s fund-raising advantages. But his vote on the health bill has cost him some allegiance. And recent polls by progressive groups show likely Massachusetts Democratic primary voters would prefer a candidate who supported the health act, making it a ripe subject for primary ads.
“I hope people understand that I try to be very thoughtful and deliberate, and try to take great care in their affairs.”
Lynch has not hidden from his Affordable Care Act votes. He posted a video on his website calling attention to and explaining those votes. He spent 40 minutes detailing for the Globe what he saw as the major problems with the law, including the lack of a public option and insufficient cost controls.
“I hope people understand that I try to be very thoughtful and deliberate, and try to take great care in their affairs, that I use due diligence,” he said. “I didn’t make everybody happy, but I certainly did what I thought was right.”
He added that he has upheld a promise he made to the president not to try and repeal the law.
Lynch’s core supporters say it was a principled stand and they have come to appreciate his critiques, particularly his opposition to a so-called “Cadillac” tax on the high-end plans that unions have fought to protect.
“He warned us about certain things, and we chose to ignore his warnings back then,” said Jay Hurley, president of the Ironworkers District Council of New England, an old friend who publicly criticized Lynch at the time but now endorses him for Senate. “You see it through a different prism [now].”
Yet supporters of the law found it galling that Lynch not only voted against it but also cited the absence of a public option as one of his reasons, months after saying he harbored doubts about the option, a government-run plan to compete against private insurers.
The controversy surrounding Lynch’s health care stance began in the summer of 2009 as the national debate roiled. His reluctance to support the public option in particular got him booed off the stage at a Boston Common Labor Day health care rally.
Though Lynch was considered a likely candidate that fall in the race to succeed Kennedy, he stepped aside when unions that previously backed him voiced frustration with his position and moved to other candidates.
“Ted Kennedy doesn’t test the wind,” Mike Monahan, business manager for Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said back then. “He knows when something has to be done regardless of its popularity.”
By the time the bill came up for its first vote in the House that November, Lynch had come around, saying he had needed time to vet the 2,000 page document and assess each provision before deciding to vote yes.
He issued a press release after it narrowly passed, calling it an imperfect bill, but one that would still achieve “a noble goal.”
Most importantly, he said, it would extend coverage to millions and prevent insurers from denying coverage for preexisting conditions.
Four months later, however, he would again change his mind, rejecting a compromise version of the Affordable Care Act coming from the Senate. He was one of 34 Democrats to vote no, a group that otherwise mostly included conservative Democrats from vulnerable districts. The final vote was 219 for the act, 212 against.
Lynch said it lacked a public option, did not put enough cost-control pressure on insurance companies, and included the Cadillac tax.
Bill supporters called Lynch’s critiques quibbles against the greater good of the legislation.
“This was clearly a momentous and historic moment. There was no space in the middle. It was, Are you in favor of moving forward or are you against it?” said John McDonough, who had helped craft the 2006 Massachusetts health care law, advised US Senate Democrats, and is now a Harvard University professor. “If he had had his way, the law never would have happened.”
Critics said Lynch had another, unstated reason: Scott Brown had just won the Senate race, campaigning against the health care law and carrying Lynch’s district. Some speculated he was hedging, with an eye toward a future run against Brown.
“He was trying to be, ‘I’m Scott Brown, with a D next to my name,’ ” said Mac D’Alessandro, who was regional political director for the Service Employees International Union.
D’Alessandro soon decided to challenge Lynch in the Democratic House primary later that year, making the congressman’s health care vote a centerpiece of his campaign. Though unsuccessful, he raised $300,000 and peeled off more than one-third of the vote from the incumbent.
Lynch still maintains that his rejection of the Affordable Care Act had nothing to do with Brown and everything to do with his own concerns that the final version of the legislation cowed too much to insurance industry demands.
“It was like a hostage situation, except in our case not only did we pay the ransom but we also let them keep the hostages, because now [they] have 31 million new customers,” he said.
Reflecting this week on his vote, Lynch said proponents oversold the bill’s do-or-die importance.
“A train of thought was going around that this is really the defining point of President Obama’s presidency, and we can’t allow the president to fail, so rally-round-the-flag boys,” Lynch said.
He recalled a long struggle that brought him to his final vote — from a summer vacation spent poring over the original bill text in a swimsuit and flip-flops to impassioned debates with old friends from labor.
In the end, he said, “this bill was not good enough.”
With fewer than eight weeks before the April 30 Senate primary, Lynch does not yet know how much his 2010 vote will weigh in the minds of the party loyalists he’ll need to win over.
“I’m not sure,” Lynch said. “We’re going to find out.”