No More Excuses

Al Franken finally was sworn in as the junior senator from Minnesota on July 7, eight months after the votes were cast, but only after the state Supreme Court on June 30 unanimously rejected former Sen. Norm Coleman’s appeal of a lower court ruling upholding Franken’s election. Republicans bankrolled the appeal to deny the Democratic caucus its 60th vote that could foreclose GOP filibusters of progressive bills.

Unfortunately, there are still at least 20 Democrats who cannot be counted on to support President Obama’s initiative on health care reform, which is why Democrats might have to tackle filibuster reform first.

Republicans insisted a few years ago (when they were in the majority) that the filibuster should be reserved for matters of principle. In the case of health care, Republicans believe that the protection of insurance corporate profits overrides the need to provide universal health coverage. That’s their principle, but the voters think otherwise. In the last election the electorate put Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, including a supermajority in the Senate.

President Obama and Senate Democratic leaders still hope for bipartisan compromise on health care and other major issues but if the GOP had 60 votes in the Senate they would set aside any such niceties. They would dismantle Medicare and Social Security so fast it would make your head spin. They also would outlaw abortion and labor unions and they’d force prayer in schools if they got the chance.

Failing that, Republicans are willing to use every trick at their disposal, including the filibuster, to block Obama’s effort to provide affordable health coverage for all Americans, which could show a new generation of voters that government can help common folks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who aligns with the Democrats, has proposed that Democrats agree to vote in a bloc to stop the filibuster. Conservative Dems should be free to vote against a bill they don’t agree with, but they shouldn’t help Republicans stop the bill from coming up for a vote.

As we’ve said before, a single-payer plan, such as expanding Medicare to cover everybody, would be the most efficient way to provide universal health coverage. But doing away with insurance companies, however much it might make sense, apparently would be too disruptive to the economy, so Obama and the Democratic leaders ruled it out. Instead, as economist Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times (July 6) the Democrats propose to approach universal health coverage through a combination of regulation and subsidies. Insurance companies would be required to offer the same coverage to everyone, regardless of “pre-existing conditions,” so that nobody would have to fear being priced out of insurance coverage. Employers would be required to offer their workers insurance or pay a penalty. But one of the keys to keeping insurance costs down would be a government-run public health plan, which would make sure there was real competition to the private health insurance market.

A bill that was drafted by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to achieve those goals would cost $597 billion over the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office figures. If Medicaid is expanded to cover the poor and near-poor, the plan would achieve nearly universal coverage at a cost of up to $1.3 trillion. That sounds like a lot, but Krugman notes that George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the rich cost $1.8 trillion.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told HuffingtonPost.com (July 6) that Franken’s vote should make it easier to pass healthcare reform. But as of July 7, only 40 senators (including Franken) supported a “public option,” which is seen as critical to universal health coverage, while 41 were opposed (including Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.).

Nineteen senators were undeclared on the public option, according to StandWithDrDean.com and other sources. The undeclared (all Dems except as noted) included Max Baucus (Mont.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Michael Bennett (Colo.), Robert Byrd (W.V.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Tom Carper (Del.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Diane Feinstein (Calif.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), John Tester (Mont.), Mark Udall (Colo.), Mark Warner (Va.), and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

With the possibility of universal coverage at stake, Democratic leaders should play hardball with any Democrats who support the GOP filibuster. Dems who can’t be trusted to support universal health care — and other progressive initiatives, for that matter — should be made to pay, with the loss of committee assignments and the loss of campaign support. Progressives should find Democratic challengers who will give the Demopublicans a run for their money in the next primary.

President Obama has expressed concerns that progressive groups have been hitting moderate Dems for not getting fully behind the public health option. “We shouldn’t be focusing resources on each other,” Obama privately told Congressional Dems, according to the Washington Post. But groups such as Progressive Change Campaign Committee and ChangeCongress told Greg Sargent of The Plum Line blog they have no intention of stopping. “If congressional staffers are complaining to the White House, that shows they are nervous and what we’re doing is working,” PCCC’s Stephanie Taylor says. “So we should just keep doing what we’re doing.” Other groups that reportedly are going ahead with ads and grassroots campaigns to persuade moderate Dems include Democracy for America, Americans United for Change and Blue America.

We know it’s hard for senators to disappoint those friends and former aides who are now working for the insurance companies, HMOs, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies and health providers. Those lobbyists and their bosses have been generous in their political contributions and are determined to sidetrack national health care. But the members of Congress have to step up and represent the interests of their constituents — not the interests of corporate benefactors.

Many Dems are able to support universal health care against the interest of big contributors and we’d remind those others who are fighting universal health care that if they are voting with the lobbyists because they got money from them, that is a bribe and it is a criminal offense. As the ethics code in the Texas Legislature goes: “If you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey ... and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in the Legislature.” After an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in June reported that 76% of respondents said it was either “extremely” or “quite” important to “give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance,” members of Congress are on shaky ground when they oppose that federally administered public plan.

The grassroots agitating may have borne fruit already. MoveOn, a group that works to elect progressive leaders, announced it would run commercials over the July 4 holiday criticizing Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) for her silence on the public option. After she endorsed legislation drafted by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that includes that provision, MoveOn set aside its plans in North Carolina. Also, after progressive senators made it clear they would not support a bill that taxes health benefits and fails to include a strong public option, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on July 7 told Baucus to stop chasing Republican votes on the health bill and pay attention to his caucus. It’s time to solidify the Democratic vote.

Call your senators via the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121, and urge them to support universal health coverage with a strong public option. As Krugman says, “We can do this — and have no excuse for not doing it.” — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

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