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Portland Cong. Earl Blumenauer ‘stunned’ by reaction to his end-of-life-counseling provision

Portland Congressman Earl Blumenauer, with trademark bow tie Credit: House Democratic Caucus

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, whose end-of-life-counseling language has inflamed the debate over healthcare reform, admits he was “stunned” by the reaction to the provision that sailed through the House Ways and Means Committee without opposition from Republicans.

The Portland Democrat says the experience has been the most discouraging in 37 years in elective politics. “It’s very much about an agenda,” he told Crosscut. “If it wasn’t healthcare it would be energy or something else.” Blumenauer, Congressman from Portland’s Third District since 1996, ascribes the tone of the debate to “the collapse of the Republican Party,” reflecting the disappearance of the sort of moderate Republicans he grew up with in Oregon.

Blumenauer, who joined the powerful Ways and Means Committee only in 2007, placed his amendment in HR 3200 as it passed the committee. His intent, which he says was shared by Republicans on the committee, is to improve patient-doctor communication when the end of life nears, to be sure patients understand all the options. Specifically, the language authorizes Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, if the patient wishes. The Blumenauer language prohibits payment for counseling that involves physician-assisted suicide, which has been legalized by popular vote in Oregon and Washington.

Oregon’s willingness to discuss end-of-life options, one widely acknowledged result of its “death with dignity” measure, may have inured Blumenauer to the furor that arose. First out of the box was Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York and well-known polemicist, who claimed the elderly would be required to have counseling on assisted suicide. The claim was quickly debunked by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning independent fact checker,, but not before the falsehood gained traction on the Republican right.

When former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ramped up the attacks by envisioning “death panels” for the disabled and elderly, fact-checkers at The Associated Press termed those statements false. Palin on Thursday refused to retreat, causing Blumenauer to say he was “astounded” that Palin had not withdrawn her comments. “If she wasn’t deliberately lying at the beginning, she is deliberately allowing a terrible falsehood to be spread with her name.”

This willingness to spread outright false statements, the Oregon Democrat told Crosscut, is one of the most disturbing aspects of the new political climate. “This would never have happened in the politics of our youth,” he observed. “This is not just a philosophical or policy dispute,” he continued; “it’s outright lying and then refusing to admit it when caught. They are fighting to stop the conversation [with disruptive acts at some healthcare forums].”

Blumenauer has rejected the large public forums on healthcare favored by some of his colleagues this month, favoring telephone forums that are less likely to attract political theater. Most Democratic congressmen in Blumenauer’s neighborhood have braved the slings and arrows in face-to-face town halls, and Rep. Brian Baird, the Vancouver Democrat, announced Thursday that he will drop his phone-in town halls and hold in-person sessions beginning Tuesday.

The blue ribbon for greatest number of town halls goes to Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Eugene Democrat who has held or scheduled 14. The largest was the 3,000 people who turned out at an Everett stadium town hall sponsored by Rep. Rick Larsen. Oregon’s other Democratic congressmen, Kurt Schrader and David Wu, also held in-person town halls. Blumenauer’s decision to use telephone rather than microphone drew a “Rogue of the Week” award from Portland’s Willamette Week, accusing him of “letting his fellow Democrats take the heat while he phones it in.”

Prior to the explosion caused by his end-of-life amendment, Blumenauer did hold a large public healthcare forum with Howard Dean, the Democratic national chairman, which drew a large crowd pushing for a single-payer plan, which Blumenauer opposes. He notes that he has held other large meetings, and has for years used town halls and other forums within his district. The Associated Press reported, “at least 3,400 people participated” in his telephone town hall on Wednesday.

Regardless of the venue, Blumenauer will continue to back his proposal, although it appears dead within the Senate Finance Committee’s bipartisan group of six, who are attempting to forge a compromise. Blumenauer’s end-of-life language remains in the House measure as it moves toward the House floor, although Blumenauer admits that some colleagues “have raised the issue” that it might be removed because of its lightning-rod characteristics.

That would be a huge disappointment for the Portland congressman, who traces his interest in end-of-life decisions to the terminal illness of a close friend, who was dying as Oregonians debated “death with dignity” laws. What he learned, Blumenauer says, is that understanding end-of-life options “gives people a sense of power” over their own lives as they near death. Blumenauer’s Web page includes a list of supporters, including the large seniors-advocacy group AARP, as well as several leading medical associations.

Blumenauer, who notes his 61st birthday Sunday, is a professional politician who got a well-publicized start in the game shortly after graduation from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, when he became the premier lobbyist for lowering Oregon’s voting age. Elected to the Oregon Legislature at age 24 in 1972, as part of a sweep of young, liberal Democrats who took over the House after eight Republican years, Blumenauer quickly made himself heard and seen. He was elected to the Multnomah County Commission and subsequently the Portland City Council, before his lone election loss, in a 1992 mayoral race won by fellow liberal Vera Katz. In 1996 he won his first congressional race, and since then has piled up 70-plus percent margins in one of the region’s most-liberal districts. The Third District is made up of Portland east of the Willamette River, and has elected Democrats since 1955.

Blumenauer has about him some elements reminiscent of former Oregon Sen. Richard L. Neuberger (1955-60), and the similarities go beyond the bow tie associated with both men. They share a knack for catchy issues, an allegiance to liberal Democratic politics, and a total dedication to public life. Neuberger was on the cusp of becoming a Senate leader when cancer took his life at age 47, Blumenauer is currently moving toward a larger role in the House.

In Congress, Blumenauer has been most prominent in a variety of urban and green issues, including promotion of bicycling and energy conservation, and he was an aggressive opponent of the Iraq War. He has passed on chances to run for governor or the U.S. Senate, and with his 2007 move to the influential Ways and Means and Budget committees of the House, he appears to be settling into the sort of political life enjoyed by incumbents in safe districts.

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