On June 19, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas made clear that he and a group of other conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs were increasingly unhappy with the direction that health-care legislation was taking in the House.
"The committees' draft falls short," the former pharmacy owner said in a statement that day, citing, among other things, provisions that major health-care companies also strongly oppose.
Five days later, Ross was the guest of honor at a special "health-care industry reception," one of at least seven fundraisers for the Arkansas lawmaker held by health-care companies or their lobbyists this year, according to publicly available invitations.
The roiling debate about health-care reform has been a boon to the political fortunes of Ross and 51 other members of the Blue Dog Coalition, who have become key brokers in shaping legislation in the House. Objections from the group resulted in a compromise bill announced this week that includes higher payments for rural providers and softens a public insurance option that industry groups object to. The deal also would allow states to set up nonprofit cooperatives to offer coverage, a Republican-generated idea that insurers favor as an alternative to a public insurance option.
At the same time, the group has set a record pace for fundraising this year through its political action committee, surpassing other congressional leadership PACs in collecting more than $1.1 million through June. More than half the money came from the health-care, insurance and financial services industries, marking a notable surge in donations from those sectors compared with earlier years, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.
A look at career contribution patterns also shows that typical Blue Dogs receive significantly more money -- about 25 percent -- from the health-care and insurance sectors than other Democrats, putting them closer to Republicans in attracting industry support.
Most of the major corporations and trade groups in those sectors are regular contributors to the Blue Dog PAC. They include drugmakers such as Pfizer and Novartis; insurers such as WellPoint and Northwestern Mutual Life; and industry organizations such as America's Health Insurance Plans. The American Medical Association also has been one of the top contributors to individual Blue Dog members over the past 20 years.
Many liberal Democrats and advocates of health-care reform were angry about the compromise bill and view the Blue Dogs as being too cozy with drugmakers, hospitals and insurers, and they argue that the conservative Democrats should be more supportive of the agenda set by President Obama and Democratic leaders.
"The Blue Dogs are carrying water for the industry instead of their constituents," said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, a liberal pro-reform group. "In effect, the Blue Dogs and the Republicans are taking positions that are closer all the time and further away from what most Americans want."
Aides to Ross and several other key Blue Dogs did not respond this week to requests for comment about their campaign contributions. But the lawmakers have said in recent interviews that they are striving to represent the moderate views of their constituents, and that leaving reform to more liberal lawmakers such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) will imperil the party's future. Most of the Blue Dogs are from rural Southern and Midwestern districts that overwhelmingly voted for Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) over Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
"I know there were some that thought we were trying to stop health-care reform," Ross said in an interview this week for The Washington Post's "Voices of Power" series. "Nothing could be further from the truth. We simply wanted to slow the process down and ensure that we were working toward the kind of health-care reform that the American people need and want."
Ross has received nearly $1 million in contributions from the health-care sector and insurance industry during his five terms in Congress, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. The lawmaker founded Ross Pharmacy of Prescott, Ark., which he and his wife sold in 2007. The couple received $100,000 to $1 million in dividends last year from the sale, according to House financial disclosure forms.
Records of political fundraisers since 2008 compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group, show a steady schedule of events for Ross sponsored by the health industry or lobbying firms that represent health-care companies. They include two "health-care lunches" at Capitol Hill restaurants in May 2008 and March 2009, as well as receptions sponsored by Patton Boggs and other major lobbying firms.
Overall, the typical Blue Dog has received $63,000 more in campaign contributions from the health-care sector than other House Democrats over the past two decades, according to the CRP analysis. The top three recipients were Rep. Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), with $1.5 million, and Tennessee Reps. Bart Gordon and John Tanner, both of whom collected over $1.2 million from the industry and its employees, according to the data.
David Donnelly, national campaigns director for the Public Campaign Action Fund, which favors public financing of political races, said the heavy industry contributions cast doubt on the Blue Dogs' motives.
"The public believes that campaign contributions shape or stop public policy," Donnelly said. "When we see significant fundraising to one segment of Congress, it raises serious questions about the campaign finance system and whether it works to the benefit of all Americans."
But Charles W. Stenholm, a former congressman from Texas who was part of the original Blue Dog group in the mid-1990s, disagrees. "The idea behind giving to a group like the Blue Dogs is that you believe that they will agree with your positions most of the time," said Stenholm, who now lobbies on behalf of agricultural companies and some health-care firms. "The same is true for liberals or anyone else. It's normal in politics."
Stenholm also argued that conservative Democrats are helping to save health-care reform from the extremes. "They have played a tremendously important role in keeping the process from getting out of control," he said. "This compromise is a perfect example of what being a Blue Dog is all about."
Staff writer Lois Romano contributed to this report.