Of all the congressional Democrats who might vote no in the impending health-care showdown in the House, perhaps few could do it with more impunity than Rep. Brian Baird. But Baird being Baird, he just might switch his vote.

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WASHINGTON — Of all the congressional Democrats who might vote no in the impending health-care showdown in the House, perhaps few could do it with more impunity than Rep. Brian Baird.

Baird, of Vancouver, already did so once as one of 39 Democrats who opposed health-care legislation that passed the House in November by 220-215. And he’s retiring after this year, gaining a lame-duck shield that would seem to inure him to any wrath from his own party.

But Baird being Baird, he just might switch his vote.

As House Democratic leaders work furiously this week to lock down the 216 “yeas” they need for passage, his vote remains very much in play.

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Baird is one of several dozen House Democrats — some previously voted yes, some voted no — who are now publicly reconsidering.

Baird had a lengthy meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday morning — his first such audience with a president in his 12 years in office.

“He understands well that the current system is unsustainable,” said Baird, who came away with a positive impression of President Obama’s knowledge of the health-care system.

For Obama to sign health-care legislation into law, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs every Democrat who backed the House bill last November to stick to his or her vote. If not, she needs some members who voted no to switch sides.

In addition to Baird, the focus has fallen on Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, who voted yes last year but is now wavering. Smith said he likes many parts of the Senate bill now before the House, including its lower price tag, but is waiting to see the yet-to-be-released amendments before deciding how he’ll vote.

The four other House Democrats from Washington say they plan to either vote yes or are leaning that way. The state’s three Republicans remain an emphatic “no.”

Democrats are weighing their options for circumventing a unanimous Republican blockade.

One way that Pelosi may placate members who are reluctant to bless the Senate bill would be to use a legislative tactic to “deem” the bill passed without a direct vote. The House then would take a second vote on a package of fixes to that bill and, if it passes, send the fixes to the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

Baird said some people seem to regard his potential vote change with contempt.

“People say, ‘What a hypocrite,’ ” Baird said. “What I want to say is, ‘It’s a different bill.’ ” Baird was the state’s sole Democratic House member to oppose the bill in November.

But it was Baird’s reasons for his vote — not the vote itself — that drew derision and bafflement.

He objected to what he saw as attempts by House leaders to stifle amendments to the bill. And though the Congressional Budget Office and leading economists said the bill would hold down health-care costs more than doing nothing, Baird said he couldn’t support it without knowing how it would affect premiums for certain people who already had insurance.

Baird admitted that bucking his party on its biggest legislative prize has exacted a toll. “Some near and dear friends are really mad at me,” he said.

But if he does switch his vote, Baird said, it won’t be to regain their good graces.

He said he has spent hours studying the Senate bill, and will do so with the forthcoming amendments. Some House Democrats have threatened to reject the Senate-based bill because they believe it doesn’t go far enough to restrict federal money from being used to cover abortions. Others don’t like it because it lacks a public option for insurance coverage.

For Baird, it boils down simply to “whether I think it’s good policy.”

Baird has sought counsel from fellow Democrats. They include Smith, Rep. Jay Inslee of Bainbridge Island and Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, all of whom voted for the House bill, as well as Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee, who, like Baird, voted no and is not running for re-election.

Smith’s own wavering got him invited to the White House two weeks ago. Obama met with Smith and a half-dozen members of the New Democrat Coalition who are concerned about the bill’s price tag.

Smith is one of 40 House Democrats and the only one from Washington targeted as part of a multimillion-dollar national ad campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to kill health-care legislation.

At the same time, Organizing for America and other groups supporting Obama’s agenda have mobilized members to contact Baird and other House members to push for “yes” votes.

Baird said his ideal reform would be vastly simpler than the bill pending in the House. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

In Baird’s vision, virtually all government-funded health programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Basic Health Plan, State Children’s Health Insurance Program — would be scrapped and replaced by a needs-based voucher system allowing people to buy coverage on their own.

Baird said many people mistakenly assume that deciding to give up his seat has liberated him to vote his conscience. But he said that’s what he did last November — and plans to do again.

“People say, ‘You’re not running for office. What do you care?’ ” Baird said. “My vote on this is totally irrelevant to whether I’m running again.”

The Washington Post and news researcher David Turim contributed to this story. Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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