WASHINGTON - With the start Monday of Democrats' shortcut to passing the health care overhaul, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) became the first New Yorker to put his re-election on the line for President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.

Bishop joined 20 other Democrats on the House Budget Committee in voting to take the first step in the "budget reconciliation" process, which if successful will make it easier for the Senate to approve the bill by taking away the Republicans' ability to filibuster it.

That drew harsh criticism by local and national Republicans toward Bishop, though he insists he hasn't made up his mind yet on the final vote on the health care bill, expected within the next week.

Chris Cox, a potential GOP challenger, e-mailed a shot at Bishop's "partisan approach to health care reform." And the National Republican Congressional Committee planned a "teletown hall" last night aimed at seniors in his district, asking them to pressure Bishop to vote against the final bill.

They were the kind of attacks all House Democrats in competitive re-election races are expected to face in November, if they've voted for health care reform.

"Americans don't want a government takeover of health care," said Tory Mazzola, the NRCC's Northeast coordinator.

But the White House and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's top recruiter, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), said Democrats can only gain by voting for it.

Israel, tapped by the DCCC to aid House Democrats this year, said, "Republicans are going to be on defense when they have to explain why they didn't support a bill that protects their residents from insurance company abuses."

The Budget Committee vote Monday is just the first step in the parliamentary maneuver known as reconciliation, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill with 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to stop a filibuster.

On Wednesday, the measure goes to the House Rules Committee, where it will be rewritten and sent to the floor in three days for a final House vote. If it passes, it goes to the Senate next week for a final vote there.

Bishop, Israel and Long Island's two other congressional Democrats, Carolyn McCarthy of Mineola and Gary Ackerman of Roslyn Heights, say they favor the bill but haven't made a final decision.

Republican Rep. Peter King of Seaford said he'll vote no.

Bishop political aide Jon Schneider dismissed Cox's attacks as a "rant."

Democrats are hoping voter satisfaction with the health overhaul, once it's all settled, and an improved economy will help them this fall.

Israel accused the GOP of distorting the bill, whose language and provisions are fluid, making it hard for Democrats to defend. "That's why it's time to produce a bill and have a yes-or-no vote, and let the American people decide for themselves."

Schneider said, "There is a lot of time between now and November."

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