Despite GOP stalling on immigration, health-site woes cause headache for Latino Democrats

Republicans have not moved on immigration reform. The public put much of the blame on the GOP for the government shutdown.

Yet three Latino Democratic lawmakers who are expected to have competitive election races next year broke ranks with their party and voted for a GOP health care bill that fellow Democrats lambasted on the House floor and Obama threatened to veto.

Reps. Pete Gallego, Raul Ruiz and Joe Garcia all cast their vote in favor of the bill authored by Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton and approved in the House 261-157 on Friday. Thirty-nine Democrats in all backed the bill.

Their votes show how the startup woes of the health care law, despite the high number of uninsured among Latinos, are creating political problems for some Democrats, in the same way immigration reform, or the lack of it, is for some Republicans with heavily Hispanic districts.

The Democrats joined with Republicans a day after President Barack Obama tried to shift the blame from his fellow Democrats in the House – hoping to smooth a rough campaign trail ahead for some - for the “fumbles” in the rollout of health care exchanges and cancellations of millions of health insurance policies.

Democrats had decried Upton’s bill as a return to the “bad old days” and the first swing in a larger attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., said the bill took a meat cleaver to the act and called it a return to the days when insurance companies preyed on working families. Velazquez voted against the bill.

Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, criticized the bill as the 46th attempt by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

In a telephone interview with NBC Latino, Gallego said he supported the bill because he sees a need for more time to transition to the Affordable Care Act, particularly in his home state where Gov. Rick Perry has “resisted every way possible” to implement the law.

Gallego said Congress needs to be part of the conversation of fixing the law. “It shouldn’t be necessary for the president to have to do everything. There’s three branches of government,” Gallego said.

At least three people have said they plan to run for the GOP nomination to challenge Gallego next fall, including the incumbent he defeated for the seat Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

Gallego won his seat in a close race. The district voted 51 percent for Mitt Romney. Though he has a large Latino population within his district, turnout of Latino voters is often lower than other groups, particularly in off-year elections.

But Gallego said the political fallout was not part of his decision-making on his vote.

“I push the red button or the green button because it’s the right button to push, I really believe you do the right thing and the rest takes care of itself,” Gallego said.

The House bill was aimed at the millions of people who have seen their policies canceled because they don’t meet the minimum standards of the Affordable Care Act. The bill would allow people to keep their policies and for insurance companies to sell new policies that don’t meet the law’s new requirements.

The fix Obama proposed would allow people with those policies to keep them for another year and for insurance companies to continue to sell them to existing policyholders. They could not sell new policies. The fix requires insurance companies to give the OK for the companies to sell those policies.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., an emergency room doctor, is running for re-election in a district that could easily go Republican. Cook’s Political Report labels the district a tossup and the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call says it leans Democratic. Obama won the district with 51 percent of the vote.

Ruiz said in a news release issued Friday he has always said the Affordable Care Act would need to be improved as it is implemented.

“Over the last few weeks, it’s become clear that one of the ways that we need to improve the Affordable Care Act is by making sure that people can keep their existing health care policies if they choose to do so,” he stated.

Maria Cardona, Democratic political strategist with the Dewey Square Group, said the lawmakers voted based on the realities they are facing on the ground. 

“It’s a vote they can take back to their constituents to say they are doing everything they can to help their constituents,” she said.

Garcia’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment. He also faces a competitive race. Garcia has had to contend with the loss of staffers who resigned amid allegations of ballot fraud. His main Republican challenger is school board member Carlos Curbelo. Garcia is the main sponsor of the House Democrats’ immigration reform bill, which has attracted a few Republican cosponsors who have significant Latino constituencies.

Obama won Garcia’s Florida district with 53 percent of the vote.

He sent a letter to state officials urging them to institute Obama’s fix.

Garamendi’s office could not be immediately reached Tuesday morning.

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