Georgia congressmen epitomize the health care debate

WASHINGTON -- For one, it was the latest act in a lifetime of laboring for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, marred at the end by the same ugly name-calling that helped launch his life's occupation.

For the other, it marked the conclusion of a long congressional career, a final vote on an issue so infuriating to him and his political party that it deemed postponement of an early resignation from the office he's held for nearly 18 years.

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta decided long ago to vote yes on a health care overhaul.

Republican U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal of Gainesville decided long ago to vote no.

On the overly dramatic stage that culminated with Sunday night's scheduled health care vote, the two senior congressmen from Georgia were relatively small players.

But with their votes, they also epitomized all the emotion, fury and passion over the issue that has engulfed Washington and the rest of the country over the past year.

"Health care is a right, not a privilege," Lewis said Sunday, paraphrasing the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, his longtime friend and a champion of health reform. Lewis began promoting universal health care in his first year in Congress more than two decades ago. Among Georgia's delegation to the U.S. House, he has been the biggest booster of the current version of health care legislation.

"The quality of a person's health care shouldn't be decided on the basis of that person's ZIP code or the size of that person's wallet or bank account," he said.

Growing up in rural Alabama, the only insurance anybody in Lewis' family ever had was burial insurance, he said. When his farmer father had a stroke in 1977 that would eventually take his life, he had no health insurance for a doctor's care. When in the 1960s as a civil rights leader the younger Lewis was beaten and bloodied, he didn't have health insurance either.

On the other side of the argument, Deal on Sunday echoed many of his fellow Republicans in characterizing Democrats' health care legislation as nothing less than an affront to American freedom.

"Anytime a government takes over the control and the ability to dictate a segment of the economy ... certainly it is a huge step toward socialism," Deal said at his partially cleared desk on what he expected to be his last day in office.

"From a philosophical point of view, I have great concerns," he said. "I think it will pre-empt much of what the free market system has given us."

Deal is resigning to concentrate on his campaign for governor. As he finished a slice of pizza in his office, an empty packing box beside his desk, he characterized Sunday's vote as "an appropriate last vote to cast."

All seven of Georgia's House Republicans were expected to vote against the health care bill. Four of Georgia's six Democrats were expected to vote for it; Reps. John Barrow of Savannah and Jim Marshall of Macon were expected to vote against it.

Like Lewis, Deal has been intimately involved in health legislation over the years. His last assignment as a member of Congress was as the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee responsible for drafting much of the current legislation. When Republicans controlled Congress a few years ago, he was chairman of the House health subcommittee.

Deal and Lewis have both seen more than their share of contentious votes during their time on Capitol Hill. But as Deal said, "none of those compare with what we have seen in regards to this health care bill."

As thousands of protesters on both sides of the argument shouted at each other outside the U.S. Capitol in one last rally in the lead-up to Sunday night's vote, the Democrat from Atlanta and the Republican from Gainesville did agree in separate interviews on one thing.

They both wish the long and drawn-out argument on health care could have been less rancorous, less spiteful.

"I would have liked to have seen us all agree on a much smaller package that dealt with the many areas of insurance reform -- that's where many of the legitimate complaints come from," Deal said. He said he actually agreed with many of the elements in the Democrats' bill. But one area where the gubernatorial candidate said he differed drastically with Democrats was on the basic idea that the federal government, not the states, should decide how to manage any new public health insurance program.

Lewis took it a step further.

"I just wish there was some way we can have civil debate and discussion -- not just here in the Congress but in the land at large, " he said.

A day earlier, opponents of the legislation shouted at Lewis as he walked on Capitol Hill, some using the n-word that he and other black congressmen have heard so often in his past.

Leaders of the Tea Party protest movement condemned the slur, as did House GOP leaders.

For his part, Lewis brushed it off, saying Sunday that he wasn't surprised given the tone and the anger of protesters.

But he couldn't help pose a question.

"Why do people have to be so mean to each other?" he asked.