— Rep. Bart Stupak made a campaign pledge back in 1992: The Michigan Democrat wouldn't join the federal government health insurance plan until all Americans had access to the same quality health care.
Representative-elect Andy Harris might be wishing he'd offered a similar promise. The Baltimore County Republican is embroiled in a flap over health insurance that could color Washington perceptions of the newcomer for some time to come.
It was sparked by a report in a Capitol Hill publication about Harris' incredulous response, during an orientation session, when he learned that it would take nearly a month after Congress is sworn in before new members would begin receiving health coverage.
On Thursday, his future Democratic colleagues tried to exploit Harris' plight — and keep the issue alive. They demanded to know how many Republicans, most of whom campaigned against the health care overhaul, would be accepting taxpayer-subsidized insurance when they take their seats in January.
The partisan sniping was something of a twist on an earlier grass-roots debate over health care, in which conservative critics demanded that members of Congress subject themselves to the same plans they wanted to foist on ordinary Americans.
In this case, newly elected Republicans were portrayed as hypocrites for accepting ample government-subsidized health benefits after campaigning on promises to repeal the law that expands coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
Whether Harris plans to enroll in the federal plan, and his reaction to the Democratic attack, was a mystery. For the third day in a row, he declined Thursday to respond to requests for comment.
Maryland's newest representative, part of the largest Republican class to hit town since the 1930s, may be the first victim of a syndrome that House Republican Leader John Boehner warned about.
As the incoming Republicans headed to Washington last Saturday, Boehner urged them to create a "humbler" majority and, as a cautionary note, sent each a Wall Street Journal column by former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan. In it, she advised the new members of Congress to be careful about how they behaved, because a ravenous news media would be watching.
"The mainstream media already has a story line in its head, and it is that a lot of these new Congress critters are a little radical, a little nutty," Noonan wrote. "The media is looking for drama. They are looking for a colorful story. They want to do reporting that isn't bland, that has a certain edge."
The Politico report about Harris seemed to reflect the tone she predicted. "GOP frosh: Where's My Health Care?" the headline read.
House Democrats, in a letter they planned to send to Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, professed surprise that Harris, who was not identified by name, "would complain about not having health care coverage for a few weeks, even after campaigning to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which will help provide coverage to millions of Americans who find themselves without health insurance for months or even years."
The letter, circulated by Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and three other Democrats, has already been signed by 59 House Democrats, including Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County.
"You cannot enroll in the very kind of coverage that you want for yourselves, and then turn around and deny it to Americans who don't happen to be Members of Congress," they wrote. In 2011 the federal government will pay $10,503 of the premiums of a member of Congress enrolled in the federal plan's standard Blue Cross option, according to the Democrats.
A Baltimore Sun survey of current members of the Maryland congressional delegation of both parties found that virtually all are enrolled in the federal program, the same one offered to millions of federal workers. The lone exception: Democratic Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who continues to receive health insurance from Baltimore County, where he worked for 27 years.
As for Stupak of Michigan, who is retiring this year, "he has kept that promise and does not receive the health insurance that members of Congress receive," press secretary Ben Corey said in an e-mail.