Person of the Week: Charlie Norwood

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RICK BOWMER/AP

'At the mike before he could reconsider': Norwood and Bush tout their deal

Until just a few months ago, only his constituents knew much about Georgia Congressman Charlie Norwood. As late as last year the phrase "Dingell-Norwood" prompted little more than a quizzical glance; Al Gore famously referred to that proposed bill in a debate with George W. Bush and was immediately branded a hopeless wonk. Today, thanks less to his dogged campaign for a patients’ bill of rights and more to this week’s compromise with the White House, Charlie Norwood’s days of absolute obscurity are over.

Grabbing headlines and generating a fair amount of animosity, Norwood broke ranks with longtime compatriots Wednesday and softened his demands. By agreeing to limit the venues in which patients' could sue their insurers, and by lowering the maximum amount patients could get in a suit, the congressman paved the way to the House passage late Thursday night of the long-delayed patients' bill of rights.

A long time coming

For six years, Norwood refused to concede those two major points. First, that patients should have the right to sue their insurers in state court. Second, that they should be able to stick HMOs with liability claims as high as $5 million. It became, over time, a point of pride: Charlie Norwood, the man who would not break. So when that same man stood before the Washington press corps Wednesday evening and announced his broad compromise with the President, jaws dropped and faces reddened across Capitol Hill. Longtime allies like Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain were brought up short by the Representative’s sudden move. Norwood himself sounded less triumphant than resigned. "The deal had to be cut by somebody," he told reporters. "I was the somebody."

For the first six years of his term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Norwood wasn’t a headline kind of guy. The 60-year-old former dentist was elected to the House in 1994 as part of the Gingrich revolution, and has spent the bulk of his political career trying to pass a patients’ bill of rights. Those efforts linked him inextricably to Rep. John Dingell (co-sponsor of the eponymous bill) — and made his name synonymous with health care reform.

That Norwood would partner with Dingell, an outspoken Democrat from Michigan, is testament to his political moxie, not to a moderate ideology. Hardly a member of the mushy middle, Norwood is a resolute conservative with little love for Democrats — but even less love for HMOs.

Making a deal, and making enemies

Hailed by the White House as a "reasonable and realistic" compromise and praised by GOP leaders, the Norwood-Bush deal left others cold. Critics argue the new language puts too great a burden on patients seeking reparations from HMOs, and could interfere with pre-existing state laws governing patients’ rights.

Wednesday evening a spokesperson for House Speaker Dennis Hastert told reporters, "Norwood gives you the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. He will bring along a lot of undecided House members." Much has been made of fellow lawmakers’ respect for Norwood. Does Norwood’s surprise handshake with the President threaten all that bipartisan goodwill? Probably. Will his career suffer? Perhaps. But even as we appraise Charlie Norwood’s political future, we might consider this: For Norwood, a Republican who wore the unlikely mantle of apostate for the past six years, it may simply be a relief to finally take his place among the party faithful — in a space carved out courtesy of the President.

Thursday, as debate raged on the House floor, John Dingell pledged to fight his co-sponsor’s amendment, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt made impassioned pleas for "common sense" and the abandonment of the Norwood-Bush compromise and other Democrats hinted darkly at the possibility of procedural derailment. The debate would not be stalled, however, and late Thursday the measure passed on a 226 to 203, mostly party-line vote. Now it's off to conference committee and what will probably be a contentious fight to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. And for Norwood, it's time to get ready for his close-up.