Advocates push Illinois Dem. to forsake maverick course on spending

Fiscal conservative was the only House Democrat to vote against the $607 billion fiscal 2008 Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill last month.

Voting with Republicans is nothing new for Rep. Melissa Bean, D-Ill., who since knocking off 36-year veteran Republican Rep. Phil Crane in 2004 has been a top GOP target in a conservative-leaning district.

But Bean took practically everyone by surprise last month when she was the lone Democrat to vote against the $607 billion fiscal 2008 Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill, a bolstered bill that Democratic leaders point to as an example of their traditional commitment to the poor, sick and elderly. Now Bean is under fire from labor and progressive advocacy groups.

"We're profoundly disappointed, to put it mildly," said Chuck Loveless, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It was a stupid vote on her part."

But Bean bills herself as a fiscal conservative, which plays well in her district. Her margin of victory last year widened to 7 points from the 4-point margin over Crane, in a district President Bush carried by 14 points in 2000 and 12 points in 2004.

"She understands the importance of the programs in the bill. She just has concerns about the overall level of spending in it, considering the size of the national debt," Bean's spokesman said.

Bush threatened to veto the Labor-HHS bill because it is $12 billion above his request. It passed 276-140 -- the precise number of 'no' votes necessary to sustain a veto, based on the requirement that two-thirds of those present and voting are needed to override -- meaning Bean's vote could be decisive.

Activists have lined up meetings with Bean during the recess to "register their extreme displeasure," said a spokesman for USAction, a network of progressive advocacy groups. USAction president William McNary, who also heads up the group's Illinois affiliate, said he was meeting with Bean next week. He said the group only focused on moderate Republicans, never expecting Bean to be a problem.

"Everyone we targeted voted right," he said, noting that Bean's vote put her in the same camp as conservatives such as former House Speaker Hastert, whereas Illinois GOP Reps. Mark Kirk, Jerry Weller, Judy Biggert, Ray LaHood, and Tim Johnson all voted for the bill.

McNary said he is now focused on changing Bean's mind should a veto-override be necessary. "Rather than throw stones at Melissa Bean, she has another chance to stand up and do what's right. You don't get many second chances in life," he said.

Bean not only angered interest groups but also House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., according to sources, who also invested a lot of effort wooing GOP moderates to support the bill. A senior Democratic aide said "he disagreed with her" but that Bean informed Obey beforehand so as not to take him by surprise.

Bean's spokesman said she is "looking forward to seeing what comes out of conference" and that if overall spending is lower, she might support the final bill.

Loveless noted that Bean announced she had received earmarks in the bill, including for a workforce training program at a local community college; an obesity prevention project aimed at elementary school children; and a therapy program for families with children at risk of being placed in foster homes. "Next time around we'll see how many earmarks she gets," he said.

Bean's spokesman said it is her policy to post earmarks in a bill on her Web site before it goes to the floor, as part of her "efforts to maintain and encourage transparency."