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April 1, 2012

STATE OF THE STATEHOUSE: Lugar dances on health care mandate in primary

INDIANAPOLIS — Like many Senate Republicans who have spent a few decades in Washington, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar was for the individual health care mandate before he was against it.

Of course, in 1993, the individual mandate was the mainstream Republican alternative to a universal health care plan being pushed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. Signers onto the bill include some of the party’s most revered members: ’96 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, former Sen. Alan Simpson (who co-chaired Obama’s deficit reduction committee) and Lugar.

Two decades later, the policy is a near heretical stance among the party’s conservative base.

As the Supreme Court spent three days debating the constitutionality of the health care overhaul signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, Lugar spent more than $30,000 airing ads attacking the measure and held a conference call with reporters lauding Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller for battling the measure in court.

What shifted in the last two decades to cause Lugar’s change of heart on the policy?

“In the past we were thinking, as many senators always have, about adequate health care for all Americans,” Lugar said on the first day of Supreme Court arguments. “But at the same time, there were questions then, as there were questions now, as to whether there can be a requirement that everybody have health care.”

That question is a large part of what now has the six-term incumbent senator fighting one of his toughest election battles. While concern about the federal deficit may have started the tea party, rage over the federal health care overhaul built it into the movement that has unseated many establishment Republicans and now threatens Lugar.

Hoosiers for Conservative Senate co-chair Monica Boyer is leading an umbrella group of tea partiers against Lugar. She noted that last week’s Supreme Court arguments were bitterly ironic for tea partiers opposing Lugar. Despite his votes against federal health care reform and his request that Zoeller challenge the law in court, his votes in favor of Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, tipped tea partiers in Indiana to begin researching his past votes, Boyer said.

“The Supreme Court justices were a jolting factor, waking everybody up,” Boyer said. “Those are particularly damaging for him because of Obamacare.”

Democrats, of course, have reveled in the dynamic as they fan the flames of the Republican primary race between Lugar and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

Indiana Democratic Party spokesman Ben Ray circulated a memo as Lugar went on the attack, drawing the parallels between the 1993 bill and the one signed by Obama.

“Before Senator Lugar was against ‘Obamacare,’ he was so proudly for it that he co-sponsored an individual mandate twice, including a bill that’s been called ‘almost identical’ to the law he wants struck down,” Ray said. “Richard Lugar is one of the intellectual fathers of ‘Obamacare.”’

The “intellectual father” moniker is the same Democrats have attached to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as they look to sink his presidential run. The difference is that Romney spent an extensive amount of his single term as governor crafting his state’s health care law and has since said that he believes the individual mandate included in his law is good for Massachusetts, but not as a nationwide policy.

While Democrats are calling Lugar’s current position on the issue a flip-flop, Lugar contends his thinking evolved in the last two decades as more alternatives became available.

“I’m doubtful that the mandate is a good one to go given the number of alternatives that have been suggested in recent years that involve more market-based, economic principles,” Lugar said.

The question now for voters is whether his thinking on the policy has changed, or whether it’s the political calculation that changed.

Tom LoBianco can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/tomlobianco

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