Finish the Health Bill

President Obama has gone over his plan for health-care reform as he met with Democratic and Republican leaders for what we hope is the last attempt to hammer out a bipartisan deal that provides a path to universal health coverage.

Obama and Senate Democrats have leaned over backwards to accommodate Republicans. The Dems made one last try Feb. 25. Among the hundreds of Republican suggestions that already have been incorporated into the Senate bill that is the basis for Obama’s health care plan, one of the most objectionable features to progressives — particularly to labor unions — is the excise tax on expensive health plans. (In his presidential campaign, John McCain wanted to repeal tax breaks for employer-provided insurance, which would have been much worse for workers and small businesses.)

Republicans so far have replied with obstruction and demagoguery. They were polite Feb. 25, but no more interested in cooperating on health reform than they’ve been for the past year.

It would have been a lot simpler if the Democrats had adopted HR 676, the bill by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. But Obama took that option off the table before the party got started. Advocates of such a “single-payer” plan would have had a hard enough time getting a majority in the House, but in the Senate, where progressive bills go to die, they would have been lucky to get a dozen votes for such a sensible proposal, because it would have put the powerful health insurance companies out of business.

(Ironically, we never got the symbolic record vote on the “single-payer” alternative because Republican obstructionists refused to suspend the rule requiring the reading of the voluminous amendment sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that would have substituted Medicare for All for the patchwork Senate bill.)

So Republicans never produced a comprehensive health reform plan. Democrats forged ahead with their own compromise plan that is designed to make insurance coverage available to the 44 million who now go without, including those whose pre-existing medical conditions make conventional insurance unaffordable. The compromise preserves the role of private, for-profit health insurance companies in the health-care industry. It is a conservative plan, and 40 years ago it might have been a Republican plan, but this year the GOP rejected it as a “socialist” big-government takeover of health care.

Yet the rejected Democrats did not go back to the “single-payer” plan that really would qualify as socialist. The Dems won’t even go back to the “public insurance option” that approximately two-thirds of Americans support. And they won’t allow Americans to buy into Medicare, either.

In the House of Representatives, where the Democrats hold a 255-178 majority, the Dems range from the Progressive Caucus with 82 members and the Populist Caucus with 29 members on the left to the Blue Dog Coalition with 54 members on the right, with many groups in between. The GOP has 178 members on the far right.

House Democrats have been able to produce at least a modicum of progressive legislation, only to watch their efforts founder in the Senate. House Dems on Feb. 23 complained that 290 bills that passed the House are stalled in the Senate, where Democrats, despite a 59-41 majority, have allowed Republicans to turn the filibuster rule into a procedural requirement that any Democratic bill needs 60 votes to pass.

Democrats could get rid of the filibuster if they had the nerve, but they likely will wait for the Republicans to regain the majority and let them do it, as the GOP threatened to do in 2005.

In the meantime, Dems can finish the health reform bill in the budget reconciliation process, which is not subject to filibuster.

There is an effort to resurrect the public option in the budget reconciliation process. As we go to press, at least 25 Dems support the public option and only Birch Bayh (Ind.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Jay Rockefeller (W.V.) have ruled it out.

Rockefeller is particularly disappointing, as he had been a vocal supporter of public option. “I will not relent on that. That’s the only way to go,” he told Politics Daily last Oct. 4. “There’s got to be a safe harbor,” he added.

But now that Democrats could pass health reform with a public option with a simple majority of 51 votes (including Vice President Biden’s), Rockefeller told HuffingtonPost.com Feb. 22 that he thought the maneuver was overly partisan and he was inclined to oppose it. He is satisfied that the Senate’s legislation includes a national non-profit system that is based on the plan federal employees enjoy. It also contains provisions that require insurance companies to spend a high percentage of their premiums on medical coverage.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Feb. 23 that President Obama didn’t include the public option in his health care plan because it doesn’t have the votes to pass. Public-option advocates complain that they would need explicit support from the White House to round up those votes.

It would be nice if the Democrats would show that they were willing to push their putative legislative priorities with anything approaching the resolve that the GOP has shown. It also would help endangered Democratic incumbents, including Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Harry Reid, by showing the working class in their states that Democrats will help them get or keep good jobs and health insurance. The best hope for Republicans, hoping for a repeat of 1994 in the mid-term elections, is to show that Democrats can’t get anything done.

Democrats hope to pick up open seats held by retiring Republicans in Missouri, New Hampshire and Ohio. Dems won’t win those seats by continuing to defer to the GOP.

Democrats must pass the strongest health-care reform bill they can. If the Republicans refuse to play, then the Democrats can fix the Senate bill through the budget reconciliation process.

Once voters realize that they not only will keep the insurance that they had before, but their insurance company won’t be able to rescind their coverage once they actually get sick, then voters might finally appreciate the effort (as polls already suggest).

If the process has been demoralizing to the progressive base, the answer is to elect more progressive populists to Congress. The House and the Senate both need more populists who will support job creation, agriculture policy that supports family farms, trade policy that promotes manufacturing jobs in the United States — and health-care policy that leaves no sick American at the mercy of an insurance company bureaucrat. We need more representatives and senators who will say no to corporate lobbyists.

Some of our readers say that the Democrats and the Republicans form one big corporate party and we need another populist party. We are not necessarily opposed to progressive populist candidates running as third-party or independent candidates. We’re just opposed to running futile third-party or independent campaigns. Bernie Sanders showed that a progressive populist — even a democratic socialist — can run and win a campaign for the Senate. But Sanders won the Senate seat only after he compiled an impressive record as mayor of Burlington and eight terms as a member of Congress from Vermont.

In most places, it’s a lot easier for a progressive populist to run in a Democratic primary. (In fact, Sanders ran in the Democratic primary in 2006.) If you can’t win a Democratic primary, you are unlikely to win in a general election. And if you are disappointed in what Barack Obama is able to accomplish with feckless Democratic majorities, you really don’t want to see John Boehner and Mitch McConnell setting the agenda in the House and Senate. We’ve played that game before. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010


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