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Push for health care an error, Frank says

Blames effort for Democratic losses in 2010

Retiring US Representative Barney Frank has said that the need for a financial overhaul was greater than one for health.

Republicans and Tea Party activists have made the strongest ideological case against President Obama’s health care law.

Now, some Democrats are leveling their own complaints, focused on the politics of the debate.

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US Representative Barney Frank, the liberal stalwart from Newton who is retiring next year, has helped fuel the criticism by arguing that it was a mistake for the president to push the health care bill before overhauling the financial system and that Democrats paid a high price when they lost the House in the 2010 mid-term elections.

“Bad economic times are not good times to do something that makes people nervous,’’ like overhauling the health care system, he said in an interview.

The grievances from within the president’s own party are significant at a time when Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, has vowed to repeal the law, and the Supreme Court is preparing to rule on its constitutionality in the midst of the race.

Several other retiring House Democrats - including Brad Miller of North Carolina and Dennis Cardoza of California - have echoed Frank’s view that the president made a mistake by prioritizing health care over financial concerns early in his term.

Others from the party disagree.

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“It’s a safe statement to say people did pay a political price, but I don’t think it was the wrong thing to do,’’ said Representative James McGovern of Worcester. “People paid a price when they voted for the civil rights legislation; people paid a high price when they voted for Medicare.’’

McGovern added: “My feeling at the time was, ‘if not now, when?’ There never seems to have been the right time do to this and, yes, we paid a political price because the process dragged on too long and we didn’t defend it well enough.’’

Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, who was elected in 2008, said she, like the president, ran on a promise that they would reform the health care system - a promise that politicians have been making for at least half a century.

“I’m really glad that that the president pushed on health care and said, ‘We’ve got to get this done before our moment is lost,’ ’’ she said. “I’ve seen a lot of moments disappear.’’

Frank first raised his concerns in an interview published this month in New York magazine.

“I think [Obama] underestimated, as did [Bill] Clinton, the sensitivity of people to what they see as an effort to make them share the health care with poor people,’’ Frank told the journalist Jason Zengerle.

“I think we paid a terrible price for health care,’’ he added. “I would not have pushed it as hard. As a matter of fact, after Scott Brown won I suggested going back. I would have started with financial reform but certainly not health care.’’

Frank blamed the focus on health care for helping to lead to the Republican takeover of the House seven months after Obama signed the health bill into law.

“The depths of the recession, and that the president didn’t want to blame Republicans because he wanted to work together, and health care - those were the factors,’’ he said.

In an interview with the Globe, Frank said that when the bill surfaced in 2009, he raised concerns about its timing with administration officials and congressional leaders, whom he declined to name. He said he is speaking publicly about his concerns now because “I was asked what I thought.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.

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