Why Liberals Won’t Kill Health Care Reform

For those opposed to the current versions of health care reform moving through Congress it might be enjoyable to see the Democrat versus Democrat circus currently underway in Washington. Both parties are susceptible to the joys of circular firing squads, but the Democrats are embracing the concept with exceptional glee of late as liberals and moderates in the Democratic caucus brawl over the shape of health care reform legislation. But at the end of the day there’s several reasons why it’s highly likely all 60 members of the Democratic caucus will vote to move the bill forward.

  1. The Senate is not voting on a final health care bill. Yes, passage of health care reform by the U.S. Senate would be a historic milestone, but just a milestone. What emerges from the Senate will go to a conference committee where the final health care reform bill will be drafted. This makes it easier for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to muster the necessary votes. For example, Senator Ben Nelson who is threatening to vote against allowing a vote on the legislation unless it’s abortion language is modified, can make it clear he’ll vote “aye” now to keep the health care bill alive, but he’ll vote against it if the conference committee doesn’t address his concerns. The liberals who are claiming the legislation is a bail-out of the insurance industry can make the same claim: “I’ll vote for it now, but it needs to get better in conference.”
  2. Liberals opposing the bill don’t vote. With the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats, most of the complaints have come from liberals outside of the Senate. Former Governor Howard Dean was the first well-known liberal to call for defeating the Senate health care reform bill. he was soon joined by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC and folks at the Daily Kos blog. The AFL-CIO and SEIU are also making noises about killing the bill and starting over. But killing the bill would require liberals to tell millions of Americans that preventing health insurance companies from denying them coverage isn’t adequately progressive. Or that preventing carriers from dropping insureds when they get sick isn’t sufficiently liberal. Or that eliminating annual and lifetime caps on insurance coverage is unimportant to liberals. Or that making health insurance accessible and affordable (through subsidies) for millions of the currently uninsured fails to meet the definition of “good enough.” Liberals will complain. They’ll whine and threaten. At the end of the day, however, it’s unlikely any liberal wants to go down in history as the vote that postponed health care reform for a generation (see reason #4, below). Mr. Olbermann gets paid to talk so the commercials on his Countdown show don’t run together. He doesn’t have vote in Congress. Neither does Governor Dean. What they say matters only within the bubble known as cable news. Having a vote in Congress is a responsibility the pundits lack, but lawmakers take very seriously – seriously enough to keep health care reform legislation moving forward.
  3. Liberals are upset over more than just the public option. While dropping a “robust” public option from the Senate health care bill is generating the most recent complaints from the left, threats to defeat the bill result from several disappointments. Many liberals support a single payer system and see a government-run health plan as a compromise. They look at the requirement for everyone to purchase health insurance and ask a reasonable question: what is to stop carriers from gouging the public? (Hence proposals for requiring high medical loss ratios). Then there’s efforts by anti-abortion groups to use health care reform to insert language that goes beyond the current status quo embodied by the Hyde amendment. Some progressives also are upset pure community rating is absent from the bill and the fact Health Savings Accounts will survive the reform effort. As the end game approaches, it’s not surprising that passions rise and frustration bubbles over. Especially for liberals about to vote for what they consider disappointing legislation, venting their displeasure is to be expected. Venting displeasure, however, is not the same as blocking health care reform.
  4. Liberals won’t get a better bill any time soon. Progressives were understandably delighted by the 2008 election results. President Barack Obama had a demonstrably liberal voting record and still won in what can legitimately be called a landslide. Democrats had substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. What was overlooked is that the Democratic Party (and the president) is more centrist than true liberals like to believe. In fact, nearly one-third of the Democratic Caucus are also members of the Senate Moderate Dems Working Group. Anyone not trying to sell Viagra and auto insurance (which leaves out Mr. Olbermann) has known for months that health care reform would be shaped by these moderate Democrats Senators. And if liberals think they’ll be replacing these moderates with more liberal Democrats they’re spending too much time in a different space-time continuum than the rest of us. The chances of liberals taking the seats of Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Evan Bayh (Indiana), Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), or Clare McCaskill (Missouri) any time soon are extremely slight. The reality is that Republicans are likely to pick up several seats in the Senate and House in 2010. Historically, the mid-term elections go poorly for the party in the White House. What this means is that for liberals, the current Congress is as good as it gets. Starting over would likely result in reforms even more moderate than what’s being considered today. That’s why Republicans are doing everything they can to slow down the health care reform process. They know the longer the process takes the more likely health care reform is likely to fail and that future attempts will be more to their liking. Liberals in the Senate know this. The Governor Deans of the world can ignore this fact, but lawmakers have to deal with reality, not the fantasies of ideologues.
  5. There’s always tomorrow. To think that whatever health care reform legislation President Barack signs into law health care reform legislation early next year will end debate on the issue for the rest of his Administration is naive. As Republicans gain strength they’ll seek to modify whatever is enacted. Democrats will attempt to expand reforms through more targeted legislation. Whatever health care reform bill emerges from Congress this session should be viewed as a foundation for future political fights, not the end of them.

Could health care reform fail because of attacks from both the left and the right? Yes. Is it likely to fail because liberals join Republicans in torpedoing health care reform? Not really. I don’t envy Senate Majority Leader Reid his task, but my guess is he’ll soon have the 60 votes needed to bring health care reform legislation to the floor of the Senate. Then if some of the liberals want to make a symbolic vote against the reform package they can go right ahead. Once the bill is brought before the Senate It only take 51 votes to move the legislation forward to the conference committee.

Of course, whether whatever health care reform legislation the conference committee can draft will secure enough votes is still very uncertain. But we will have the chance to find out.

New Elements Added to Health Care Reform Debate

I haven’t been writing much of late. The Senate debate has simply been too predictable to merit much comment. The partisan attacks could have been scripted months ago. The votes unsurprising, and the difficulty Democratic Leaders face in fashioning a 60-vote majority is to be expected.

Consider: Republicans charge the Democrats will destroy Medicare. The fact that not long ago it was the GOP wanting to eliminate waste and abuse from the program seems to be forgotten. Democrats, meanwhile, seem incapable of understanding the relationship between medical costs and insurance costs. Listening to their claims that cracking down on evil insurance companies will lower health care spending is disappointing. It would be nice if now and then a Senator would acknowledge that medical costs drives up premiums and not vice versa – a wish not likely to be realized any time soon.  I heard on the radio last week (sorry, not sure what station) a lawmaker complaining that health insurance companies use actuaries, an unfair advantage they wield to the detriment of consumers.

But in the past few days some ideas seem to be gaining traction that could mix things up considerably. One proposal is to allow 55 through 64 year olds to buy into Medicare. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein seems to be the first blogger to report the Medicare buy-in proposal is “attracting the most interest” as an alternative to creating a new government-run health plan to compete with private carriers. The under 65 cohort would not get basic Medicare coverage for free nor does it look like this approach includes subsidies not already on the table. It simply is a way to create access for some Americans to a public health plan without creating a new public health plan. And as with the public option, participation by 55 year olds would be voluntary.

That the idea of a Medicare buy-in option is gaining traction would seem to indicate that chances for a “true public option” are diminishing. Even liberal bloggers like AntonRobb at Benzinga.com are reaching this conclusion. “… proponents of the public option may be compelled to get behind this plan as an alternative. The severeley (sic) comprised … versions of the public option that have any chance of passing … would probably be worthless and probably do more damage politically to the Dems than good,” he writes.

The other interesting idea to emerge is to, as CBS News describes it, “establish national health insurance options, which would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) but operated by private, nonprofit insurers ….” Since the OPM already administers the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program (FEHBP), which insures members of Congress and their staffs among others, this alternative to a public option is being viewed as the equivalent of opening up the FEHBP to non-government workers. (Incidentally, although the CBS reports implies the plans would be administered only by nonprofit carriers, this is far from certain. None of the other news reports mentioned this restriction – and there are for-profit carriers participating in the FEHBP.)

The “what’s good for Congress is good for the public” approach seems to appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats who have been objecting to the creation of a new government-run health plan run by the Department of Health and Human Services. As CBS notes, Senators like Ben Nelson describes this proposal as an alternative to, not a version of, a public option.

The import of these proposals go beyond the fact that new ideas are on the table. It also shows the influence likely to be wielded by the “gang of 10” Senators formed over the weekend. These 10 Senators, five liberals and five moderates, are charged with hammering out a compromise on the public option, according to MSNBC. While focused on the public option, it is likely this group of lawmakers will be called on to bridge the chasm that separates liberal Democratic Senators from their moderate and conservative colleagues. Remember, liberals have long claimed that health care reform without a public option is no reform at all. So if the gang of 10 manages to find a way to remove a government-run health plan from the legislation while still keeping liberals on board, they will position themselves to fashion compromises on other divisive issues as well.

(For those interested, the gang of 10 is comprised of Senators Sherrod Brown, Russ Feingold, Tom Harkin, Jay Rockefeller, and Charles Schumer from the liberal wing of the party and moderate Democratic Senators Tom Carper, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor).

As noted above, the momentum building behind the Medicare buy-in and an FEHBP-type proposal is that the public option is not going to make it into the Senate bill. Not with a trigger. Not with an opt-out. Instead it appears the public option won’t be in the legislation at all. This should mollify Senator Joe Lieberman who has promised to vote with Republicans against bringing a health care reform bill to the floor if it contains a public option.

All of this also makes clear the strong desire of Democrats, regardless of their ideology, to pass health care reform. The New York Times reports on various lawmakers’ description of President Barack Obama’s message to Senate Democrats on Sunday. “He reminded us why we are here. He reminded us why we run for office. And he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through.” “Decades from now this will be the kind of vote you remember. It will be written in the faces of children and families who are relieved of the burden of anxiety and sorrow.”

Democrats consider this a historic moment. While grasping it carries political risk in the upcoming 2010 elections, failing to seize the opportunity poses even greater dangers. And the crushing of a dream many of these lawmakers have held for decades.

There are still controversies that could scuttle health care reform. And there will enough political charges and counter-charges bandied about to satiate even the most verbose pundits. But Senators are serious about finding a path to passage and it is increasingly likely they will pass some version of health care reform before years-end. Of course, this will only set the stage for the real work to begin: the House-Senate Conference Committee likely to convene shortly after New Year’s Day.

Health Care Reform is Coming, But it Won’t Be Easy

Personally, I think health care reform is inevitable. The need for change is simply too great. Too many people go without coverage, too many are insecure about the coverage they have. Controlling medical costs is a critical part of fixing the economy: businesses and state and local governments need relief. Political pressure for a solution — from across the ideological spectrum — has reached critical mass.

The reform process is well underway. President Barack Obama held a health care summit at the White House earlier this month. Several proposals are making the rounds. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has one.  Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Ted Kennedy and his staff have been actively meeting with stakeholders. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Bob Bennett have introduced the Health Americans Act, which is supported by several colleagues from both sides of the aisle. There’s the proposal put forward by President Obama during the campaign and embellished somewhat since his inauguration. Republicans have their plans and think tanks have theirs.

We’ve seen this before. In 1993 it looked like President Bill Clinton’s spent enormous political capital seeking health care reform. He failed. A recent Newsweek article by Katie Connolly outlined several reasons why the health care reform debate now is likely to be much different than the battles in 1993. The Clinton Administration failed in large part because their efforts were politically inept and inflexible. President Obama’s approach is much more open, inclusive and savvy.

Of course, at this stage we’re still dealing with generalities. The specifics, which is where the devil receives his mail, have yet to emerge.  When they do the hard part of the process begins. And that could be any week now.   The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery and Ceci Connolly reported today that “House Democrats, in consultation with the White House, will give Republican lawmakers until September to reach a compromise on president Obama’s signature health-care initiative ….”  Currently, several committees in both houses of Congress are holding hearings on health care reform. These, however, are more educational in nature, allowing interested parties to provide input and begin staking out positions. With little legislation before them the hard negotiations have yet to begin. Those discussions will have to start sooner than later if Congress is to meet the House Leadership’s September deadline. Given the complexity of health care reform it will require months of negotiations to find common ground. 

Finding that common ground won’t be easy. Already Republican Leaders are identifying deal killers. A National Association of Health Underwriters’ newsletter quotes Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee as identifying the Obama Administration’s call for a national health coverage exchange to compete with the private market as extremely problematic. The GOP won’t accept such a program, according to Senator Grassley, and Democrats are likely to insist on one. There may be a way to create an exchange that satisfies both parties, but that requires a lot more specifics than have emerged yet. 

(Note added 3/20/09 at 7:45 pm: the rift between Senator Grassley’s position and those favoring a government insurance plan is growing wider — and nastier. Carrie Budoff Brown, writing in Politico today, reports on “a four-day ad buy aimed at Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee who is increasingly vocal in his opposition to the government insurance option.” Health Care for America Now is leading the charge against Senator Grassley. At the White House Forum on Health Care the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee told President Obama that such exchanges were “‘an unfair competitor’ and could run private insurers out of business,” according to the Politico story. The article also notes that Senator Wyden found no Republican Senators willing support his bipartisan legislation if it included a government run health plan. “From a raw political standpoint, having talked to a lot of senators, I wouldn’t have any Republicans on the Health Americans Act as cosponsors if we had a public option,” he told Politico.)

There is a way for Democrats to pass health care reform without Republican votes. If a compromise fails to emerge by September, the House Leadership is pushing for a legislative process that would allow passage with simple majorities in both chambers. This would be accomplished through a process called “budget reconciliation.” Under the reconciliation rules, filibusters are not permitted enabling the Senate to move legislation forward with a simple majority of 51 votes instead of the 60 needed to end a filibuster. Democrats currently hold 58 seats in the Senate (including those of two independents who caucus with them) with one more likely to arrive from Minnesota. (Filibusters don’t exist in the House, making passage by majority vote the norm in that chamber).

But Democrats may have a tough time pulling together even 51 votes in the Senate. Senator Evan Bayh announced on MSNBC on Wednesdaythat 16 moderates in the Senate (15 Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the party) have come together to provide a united, centrist voice to issues such as health care reform. As noted in the press release announcing the group’s formation, their goal is “to pursue pragmatic, fiscally sustainable policies across a range of issues, such as deficit containment, health care reform …” and others. With 16 members, this caucus, currently dubbed the “Moderate Dems Working Group” represents more than a quarter of the Democrats serving in the Senate. If even 10 0f these centrists stick together they’ll need to be a part of any deal struck on health care reform.  (A list of the 16 Senators in the group is below).

At the same time there are liberals in Congress who would just assume have government take over the health insurance industry and create a single payer system similar to that in place in Canada and many Western European countries. At the very least they look to a greater role for the government in providing health care coverage to middle class Americans (the government is already the primary insurer for older and low income citizens).  They won’t go quietly along with a solution they feel fails to assure universal and comprehensive  coverage.

What this means is that while health care reform is coming, getting there won’t be easy. But there is a way. President Obama has long talked of the need to focus on core principles and the desired outcome instead of on how we get there. He has even said that his campaign proposal for a federal health insurance exchange (the deal breaker identified by Senator Grassley) is negotiable. As noted in the Newsweek article, the president said at  the White House summit, “If all Americans could be insured at ‘an affordable rate and have choice of doctor, have flexibility in terms of their plans, and do that entirely through market, I’d be happy to do it that way.'”

This is the approach all lawmakers and interest groups — whether liberal, moderate and conservative — need to bring to the table. The health care reform debate will be heated, passionate and difficult. But if all participants focus on the goals, the means of getting there can be found.  Given the need, it better be.

***************

The 16 members of the Moderate Dems Working Group (who, hopefully, will work on coming up with a better name) are:

  • Evan Bayh (Indiana) – co-chair
  • Mark Begich (Alaska)
  • Michael Bennet (Colorado)
  • Tom Carper (Delaware) – co-chiar and a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Kay Hagan (North Carolina) — a member of the Senate H.E.L.P. Committee*
  • Herb Kohl (Wisconsin)
  • Mary Landrieu (Louisiana)
  • Joe Lieberman (Connecticut)
  • Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas) – co-chair and a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Clare McCaskill (Missouri)
  • Ben Nelson (Nebraska)
  • Bill Nelson (Florida) — a member of the Senate Finance Committee*
  • Mark Pryor (Arkansas)
  • Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire)
  • Mark Udall (Colorado)
  • Mark Warner (Virginia)

* The Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (H.E.L.P.) Committee have primary jurisdiction over health care reform legislation.