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Voters Press Indiana Democrat For Health Bill Decision

Brad Ellsworth acknowledges supporters after defeating his Republican rival in 2006.
Darron Cummings
Brad Ellsworth acknowledges supporters after defeating his Republican rival in 2006.

Indiana Rep. Brad Ellsworth is a Blue Dog Democrat: He's a pro-gun, anti-abortion fiscal conservative. He supported health care reform last November after an amendment was added that prohibited federal funds from being used for abortions. Labor groups and others lauded the congressman, and now they've launched a million-dollar ad campaign urging him and other wavering Democrats to support the Senate version:

Ellsworth says he's studying the current bill's language. He won't be able to support it, he says, if he thinks it could result in federal money paying for abortions.

To complicate matters for Ellsworth, he is considered a leading candidate to replace retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D). Republican strategists, who had already planned to use Ellsworth's November vote against him, say its time for Ellsworth to tell his constituents where he stands.

Where His Constituents Come From

Ellsworth represents a big swath of southwest Indiana, and he has a district office in Terre Haute -- about 75 miles west of Indianapolis

Once a week, members of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Terre Haute meet in a popular cafeteria not far from Ellsworth's office.

About 15 people showed up for this week's meeting: Democrats, Republicans and independents; a few college kids; and middle-aged and elderly adults. This is a Democratic -- but conservative -- area. President Obama won the state in 2008, but he lost the Ellsworth district by 4 percentage points.

As Split As Congress

Health care is on the agenda of the club on this particular evening, and later some stay behind to discuss the health care bill. Their opinions are as split as Congress.

Members and friends at the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Terre Haute in Indiana.
Cheryl Corley
Members and friends at the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Terre Haute in Indiana.

Retired schoolteacher Geri Black says Ellsworth should vote for the health care bill. She says it is not much different from the bill that the congressman voted for last year. And Black notes that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that public funds won't be used to pay for abortions under this legislation.

"And if she's speaking the truth, whoever is saying abortion is in there is really stretching a point," Black says.

Ron Reeves, a retired engineer, says Ellsworth must have a reason for thinking the bill would allow federal funds for abortions. "I don't care what Nancy Pelosi says," Reeves says. "He's in her party. He ought to know whether it's there or not, and if he says it must be there, he wouldn't be on the fence."

Jeff Jenson, 45, who works in military intelligence, says if Ellsworth has concerns about the bill, he should vote against it. "Absolutely," Jenson says. "I think I'm part of the silent majority. And I do my talking at the ballot box. I don't run around town with signs, and if he votes for that, I'll vote against him."

'Something Has To Be Done'

Jenson's mother, Mary, a retired schoolteacher, had a much different view. "I believe in health care for everyone," she says. "I work with a lot of disadvantaged children in my volunteer life, and I'm very much pro-choice."

Mary Jenson adds that the health reform bill may not be perfect, but it's time for Congress to act. Retired political science professor Bob Puckett agreed with her. "Something has to be done for the 30 million-plus people without insurance," Puckett says. "And if we don't do something now, it's going to be another 20-30-40 years before they have the guts to try it again."

In the days leading up to the vote, Ellsworth and other undecided members of Congress will be the primary focus for both sides in the health care debate.

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