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With Public Option Momentum Growing, Will Progressives Still Fight for New Obama Plan?

Art Levine

Before Thursday’s bipartisan healthcare summit, President Obama weighed in Monday with a new health care plan that adds some populist flavoring by potentially cracking down on insurance rate hikes. But it still lacks the important public option favored by progressives. 

The White House made even clearer today that it won’t fight for a public option even if growing numbers of Senators—now up to 22 — have gone on the record favoring passing it through reconciliation. The on-the-record whip count is due largely to to the grass-roots efforts of the Howard Dean-founded Democracy for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) and others in the netroots.

The public option may be climbing back out of its crypt, and retains strong popular support, but the continuing skepticism over its passage among politically nervous Democratic Senators and the White House still dims its prospects. But there’s little doubt that interest in the public option — which makes good sense politically and as policy to keep health insurers honest, advocates say — has been revived.

As The Hill reports (hat tip to Kaiser news service): The recess week ended up providing liberal activists and their allies on Capitol Hill with a surprise opportunity to breath life into the proposal to create a government-run health insurance plan – a proposal that had been declared all-but-dead two months ago.”

Part of the credit goes to activists like PCCC’s Adam Green and his allies’ grassroots campaign to use both polling and grass-roots pressure on Senators to take a stance on behalf of using reconciliation to pass a public option. Green said on Tuesday’s The Ed Show on MSNBC, when talking about the public polling in the states of swing Senators on health care, In every single state, the current Senate bill polls about 30% while support for the public option is about 60%.” He added, The White House has not fought for the public option one iota,” and he credited the efforts of thousands of progressive consitutents in pressuring their Senators to declare themselves in support of the public option – even as a strong supporter, Howard Dean, raised doubts about whether it could withstand a challenge under Senate rules.

Despite campaigning for months on using reconciliation to pass a public option, Dean this week indicated that expanding Medicare to those older people under 65 might have a better chance. He told Keith Olberman,

It’s going to be a very hard thing under the rules of the Senate to put reconciliation in there. If they want a public option, they’re probably going to have to use a Medicare expansion. Had it not been for Joe Lieberman’s negativity, we would have had the Medicare compromise [to bring the age down to 55] pass in the Senate with 60 votes. So that fits in with reconciliation, and it’s easier for folks to swallow.

Dean may be adopting a new pragmatic tone by describing the Medicare expansion as a form of a public option,” but it’s not as sweeping a goal as the drive by the organization he founded, Democracy for America, to still push for a public option as generally proposed. On its web page it quotes from a letter circulating among Democrats, co-authored by Colorado Senator Michael Bennett:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach – its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.

The reality, though, whether or not there’s a public option, is that a growing chorus of progressive pundits is urging House liberals, still resistant to the weaker Senate bill and Obama’s variation, to go along with it, strengthened by reconciliation add-ons. As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post summed up the prevailing get-it-done mood:

The election of Scott Brown threw the politics of the issue back into chaos, and unlike in past instances, left the process uncertain as well. But Democrats have spent the past few weeks rebuilding the process, and today was the first step: The press will now spend a few days covering the plan itself, rather than just the politics of the issue. Then comes Thursday’s summit, and if all goes well there, Harry Reid says that the Senate will use the reconciliation process to make a few tweaks and changes and, alongside the House, finish this bill.

That, of course, is the real plan: finish the bill. The Democrats have been roundly criticized for mishandling the politics of health-care reform, and those criticisms have often been justified. But there’s a larger truth, too: The only way to win this issue is to pass the bill. Their biggest mistake has been letting the legislation take so long. But that doesn’t mean they’ve failed. They fail if the bill fails, and they succeed if the bill passes. The progress has become slow and halting and unsteady, but they are still moving toward the finish line.

Union leaders gave the president’s proposal modest praise, but some House progressives were more skeptical and it’s not clear they’ll go along.

For instance, the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka offered only some relatively bland comments in support of the proposal – and its promise – rather than a wholehearted endorsement:

We look forward to moving the ball forward this week toward the goal of quality, affordable health care for all Americans. Republicans in Congress have an opportunity to stand with working families or continue to protect the profits of the insurance industry. We are prepared to work with the White House and leadership in Congress to advance a comprehensive health care bill that will be passed into law.

SEIU’s Andy Stern and his union, closely allied with the White House, joined with such health care groups as Families USA in urging Washington leaders to keep broad health care reform principles in mind, signalling an urgency about passing legislation even, apparently, if a public option isn’t included. As the SEIU blog observed, in a piece called, Doing Nothing Is Not An Option,” that also cited an uninsured reform advocate, Melanie Shouse, whose death from breast cancer has inspired a march on Washington:

Today, several advocacy organizations (including SEIU) sent a joint letter to Senate and House leaders this morning encouraging them to make this healthcare summit really count – by enacting comprehensive health reform legislation. The letter lays out five pillars reform legislation must encompass to be truly comprehensive. Reform must:

  1. Make health coverage affordable and protect families against financial devastation when they need care.
  2. Extend health coverage to the tens of millions of working Americans who are uninsured.
  3. Eliminate insurance company and health system waste.
  4. Provide portability of coverage and eliminate insurance company abuses that deny coverage for people needing care.
  5. Place the nation on a path toward fiscal sustainability.

The White House has also been preparing for the bipartisan healthcare summit on Thursday, today releasing their health care reform plan. The plan increases affordability, expands choices, prohibits discriminatory insurance company abuses, and reduces federal budget deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next 20 years. Read the proposal here.

Andy Stern released a statement reacting to the proposal:

The President recognized with his proposal today that people like Melanie should not have to lose their life because of an insurance company refuses treatment. That insurance companies cannot be allowed to gouge Americans with rate increases that force them to pay up to 39% more for the exact same coverage. And that working families deserve health insurance that covers more and costs less.

With the President’s leadership and thoughtful consideration that the only way forward is with comprehensive reform, there is a guarantee that reform can and will be meaningful. And, it is because of that commitment and that of Majority Leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi, that every American will soon have a renewed sense of security and a healthcare system that works for them…”

Even so, as Salon’s War Room reported about some House progressives’ coolness to the president’s plan, quoting the co-chair of the progressive caucus, Rep. Raúl Grijalva ( D-Ariz):

I and many other progressives would enthusiastically support the bill if a public option, which would provide insurance industry competition and greatly reduce the deficit, were a higher priority. I am also concerned that affordability credits are not sufficient for many working Americans who often have to choose between health care and other equally basic expenses each month. Insurance industry regulations in the bill could be stronger, and I will look carefully at the outcome of final negotiations on this point. I look forward to finalizing a reform package that will give all Americans adequate, reliable health care access.

The role of the House – which only passed its version of healthcare reform by a narrow margin – has become especially critical. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn notes:

The proposal Obama unveil[ed] on Monday is supposed to lay out a compromise that a majority in the House, as well as a majority in the Senate, find acceptable. Smart money says it will look a lot like what the leadership of the two chambers had negotiated right before Scott Brown’s Massachusetts win changed the political situation. Apparently unresolved, still, is the question of which House votes first. And that’s no small thing.

But the bigger question, really, is the broader one: Will Democrats, particularly in the House, get past their fear and vote for the bill? Really that’s what the summit is all about – convincing nervous Democrats that the Republicans really aren’t interested in compromise and that health care reform, despite the poll numbers, is still a good idea. (Hopefully somebody will mention to nervous Democrats the finding, consistent across polls, that the individual elements of reform remain extremely popular, even if the package as a whole isn’t.)

Obama has risen to the occasion before – in his September address to Congress and his recent State of the Union Address. Both times, the consensus in Washington was that reform was dead. Both times, Obama proved that consensus wrong. This week the president needs to pull off that feat again. Or else, finally, reform may really be dead.

Whether grassroots activism will be sufficient to pull off enough pressure for meaningful reform is still an open question as groups like Health Care for America Now! promote a virtual” march on Washington February 24th with the message to finish health care right.”

It’s still not clear that it will be finished at all. As the centrist AP reported on some of the remaining roadblocks:

Starting over on health care, President Barack Obama knows his chances aren’t looking much more promising.

A year after he called for a far-reaching overhaul, Obama unveiled his most detailed plan yet on Monday. Realistically, he’s just hoping to win a big enough slice to silence the talk of a failing presidency.

The 10-year, $1 trillion plan, like the current Democratic version in the Senate, would bring health insurance to more than 31 million Americans who now lack it. Government insurance wouldn’t be included, a problem for Democratic progressives. Republicans are skeptical about where the money would come from – and Obama’s claim that the plan won’t raise the federal deficit.

Striking out in one fresh direction that should have wide appeal, Obama would give federal regulators new powers over the insurance industry, a reaction to a rash of rash of double-digit premium hikes that have infuriated policy holders in California and other states.

The plan is supposed to be the starting point for Obama’s televised, bipartisan health care summit Thursday – a new beginning after a year of wrangling and letting Congress take the lead. Yet Republicans were quick to dismiss it as a meld of two Democratic bills the public doesn’t want. Democrats, while reaffirming their commitment to major changes, reacted cautiously, mindful that Obama is asking them to stake their political fortunes in the fall elections.

In the end, Americans who have listened to a year of talk about big changes in their health care, may see much smaller changes, if any. The president is likely to have to settle for much less than he wants – small-bore legislation that would smooth the rough edges of today’s system but stop well short of coverage for nearly everyone.

Still, any kind of win on health care would be good for Obama right now. For a president, victory often begets victory, defeat spawns defeat. A modest achievement would allow Obama to move on to other pressing issues, claiming credit for getting something done despite the harshest partisan environment in years…

But privately, a senior White House official sought to lower expectations, saying a solid single is better than striking out swinging for the fences. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The next week or two will be critical, and unless there’s an outpouring of grassroots support for action, we could be facing as long as a decade before any real new drive for reform takes place again.

One starting point: Moveon​.org Political Action’s new campaign to push for the public option through reconciliation and stronger reform, including a new video featuring Heather Graham.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein told Rachel Maddow that he is optimistic that Obama’s tweaks to the House and Senate bills to make healthcare more affordable, and regulate insurers, is closer than ever before — if the House goes along with using it as a basis for reconciliation.

UPDATE II: Liberals take aim at the White House’s loser mentality” over the public option as reported by The Daily News and other news outlets:

Liberals Whack White House Loser Mentality’ 

Liberals took a brutal whack at the White House this afternoon — suggesting losers are leading” the health care fight — after President Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs declared there isn’t enough political support” to pass a public health insurance option.

The White House obviously has a loser mentality — but America rallies around winners,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the group Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Polls show that in state after state, voters hate the Senate bill and overwhelmingly want a public option, even if passed with zero Republican votes,” Green said. More than 50 Senate Democrats and 218 House Democrats were willing to vote for the public option before.”

Green and company have mounted a surprisingly effective campaign over the last week to get Democratic senators to to sign on to a push to pass a public option through the 51-vote budget reconciliation loophole. So far, 23 senators have backed it, including New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer and New Jersey Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg.

The only way to lose in reconciliation is if losers are leading the fight,” Green fumed about Gibbs and the White House. That’s why Democrats in Congress should ignore the White House and follow those like Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez who know that the public option is a political and policy winner.”


Incidentally, Rep. Anthony Weiner, who may have done more than just about anybody to talk up the public option, thinks there are enough supportive Democratic senators to pass it.

Read more: http://​www​.nydai​lynews​.com/​b​l​o​g​s​/​d​c​/​2010​/​02​/​l​i​b​e​r​a​l​s​-​w​h​a​c​k​-​w​h​i​t​e​-​h​o​u​s​e​-​l​o​s​.​h​t​m​l​#​i​x​z​z​0​g​P​A​P2qzg

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Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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