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Will Progressives 'Push Back' or Help Kill Health Bill?

Left Eases Threat to Kill Health Bill, But Resistance Persists and Opportunities Remain

Alexander Bolton

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Sanders has indicated to both the White House and Senate leadership that his vote is not certain for the much compromised Senate health bill. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Liberal groups and labor unions have pulled back from calls to kill the Senate healthcare bill.

senators are coalescing behind the legislation, tailored to centrist
demands, that would expand healthcare coverage to more than 30 million
Americans but would neither create a government-run insurance program
nor expand Medicare to people younger than 65.

House Democrats and
liberal interest groups are hoping to win a few concessions in
conference, which is expected to wrap up in time for Obama to tout the
completed bill during his first State of the Union address in January.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who
will participate in bicameral healthcare negotiations, said he was glad
the party's base is putting pressure on lawmakers.

 "We need
that left pressure," said Waxman, who added that senators need to
understand that "we're not just going to take their bill but we're
going to work to make it better."

Republicans, sensing the
strong wind developing behind the Democratic legislation, have stepped
up efforts to stall progress on the Senate floor and force the majority
to miss its goal of passing the bill before the Christmas holiday.

most visible sign came Wednesday when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)
insisted clerks read a 767-page amendment, a task that would have taken
eight to 10 hours.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the
amendment sponsor and a leading liberal proponent of the public option,
quickly withdrew his amendment.

But later on Wednesday, Sanders said he could not vote for the bill "as of this point."

of this moment. I am going to do my best to make this bill a better
bill, a bill that I can vote for but I've indicated both to the White
House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this
point," Sanders told Fox Business Network's Neil Cavuto. 

liberals are firing salvos at their grassroots counterparts. Sen. Jay
Rockefeller (W.Va.), a leading Democrat, slammed former Democratic
Party Chairman Howard Dean, who a day earlier called on liberal
senators to "kill" the Senate bill. Rockefeller called that approach
"nonsense" and "irresponsible."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who
has questioned his leaders' approach to healthcare reform from the
start, has also gotten behind the new bill, declaring this week that
conservatives and special interest groups who oppose the bill would pop
champagne corks in celebration if it failed.

But leading House liberals have threatened to take down the bill if they don't win concessions in conference.

Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the 83-member House Progressive
Caucus, said if the final healthcare bill does not include "some
semblance of the public option" or a repeal of the antitrust exemption
for insurance companies, "it will be very difficult, if not impossible,
to support."


Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the other co-chairwoman of the Progressive
Caucus, said Obama "promised the country healthcare reform, and this is
not healthcare reform."

Woolseys' comments reflect growing
frustration among some liberals that Obama has not fought hard enough
for the public option and other reforms they favor.

"One very
widely felt sense among progressives is that this is Barack Obama's
fault," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign
Committee. "Obama refused to fight for the public option."

noted that Obama did not travel to Connecticut or Maine, the homes of
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), respectively, to
campaign for the public option.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)
on Tuesday told The Hill it would be wrong to blame Lieberman for
watering down the Senate bill because "this bill appears to be
legislation that the president wanted in the first place."

lawmakers, labor officials and liberal leaders have pronounced
themselves "very disappointed" with the Senate bill, but they have
stopped short of backing Dean's call to kill it outright.

a surprising development Wednesday, the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU) pulled out of an event planned with other organizations to
promote the Senate bill. SEIU and other unions are concerned about
concessions Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made to win the
support of Lieberman and Democratic centrists.

An official at
one union said labor leaders were still trying to decide how they would
respond publicly to the latest developments in the Senate bill.

But while labor unions are holding back support, they are not inclined to launch a campaign to scuttle the legislation.

Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, a
coalition of groups including SEIU, the AFL-CIO and, said
the goal now is to improve the legislation in Senate-House negotiations.

"We're looking for the conference committee to make improvements on a host of issues," he said.


Senate Democrats have
talked about a short conference with the House to speed final passage
of the healthcare reform bill and give Obama something to tout at his
State of the Union address. They expect to have enough votes to pass
the bill through their chamber because of the concessions made to

strong pushback from the base signals that talks between the chambers
will be more complicated and time-consuming than expected.

leading liberals acknowledge that a government-run insurance program is
unlikely to win 60 votes in the Senate, but they think many other
provisions they favor in the House bill can pass the Senate.

are pushing for Senate negotiators to accept the higher subsidies the
House has set aside for people earning below 400 percent of the federal
poverty level.

They would also like the Senate to reduce the
tax liabilities posed to middle-class families by accepting more of the
House's plan for raising revenues, which shifts a greater share to the
nation's highest income earners.

Liberals would also like the
Senate to accept the House plan for establishing a national insurance
exchange. The Senate bill would set up insurance exchanges at the state
-instead of the national - level.

Another demand is for the
Senate to accept the employer mandate contained in the House bill,
which would impose a broad requirement on businesses to provide
healthcare benefits to employees.

Liberals are also calling
for the Senate to accept more stringent prohibitions on insurance
companies imposing coverage caps on customers and match the House
proposal to expand Medicaid to cover people earning up to 150 percent
of the federal poverty line.

"A lot of progressives in the
House are inclined to vote no," said Mike Lux, a political strategist
for liberal groups. "If progressives bargain hard and push back, things
in the healthcare bill could be improved."

Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.

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