House progressives organizing to rescue health care reform are
pressuring their Senate counterparts to go back to the provision that
has most energized the party and a majority of Americans throughout the
debate: The public option.
The effort was discussed during a closed-door meeting on Tuesday
night, with a faction arguing that the best way to salvage reform is to
persuade the Senate to pass the public health insurance option using
the budget reconciliation process that needs only a majority vote.
They argued that the current bill before the House, which passed the
Senate, lacks the votes needed to pass because pro-life Democrats don't
believe the abortion restrictions go far enough and progressive
Democrats don't like the lack of a public option, the weak
affordability measures or the tax on private insurance. And nobody
likes the Cornhusker Kickback,
a provision won by Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson that would cover the
state's Medicaid bills in perpetuity. Not even Nelson likes it anymore.
So, in order to move health care through the House, Democrats either
need to pick up progressives or conservatives. And the budget
reconciliation process does not lend itself to altering abortion
language reform, because that wouldn't have a direct, substantial
impact on the budget.
That leaves progressives as the bloc available to pick up. Their
demands -- changes related to the tax on insurance, a Medicaid or
Medicare expansion, and a public option -- would likely be allowable
using reconciliation. (The Senate parliamentarian would have the final
Two House freshmen, Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Jared Polis
(D-Colo.), circulated a letter, looking for signatures, that will be
delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Thursday on
behalf of the plan, Polis told HuffPost.
Reid is not generally receptive to advice from the lower chamber,
but health care reform has stumbled into territory where there is no
If Reid and President Obama decide that the House Democrats have a
workable plan -- perhaps the only viable plan left, after the New York Times declared that the brakes had been slammed -- they may be able to accomplish it.
Pingree told HuffPost that the pair's proposal was met with
excitement from some quarters and skepticism from others. "There are
plenty of people who say there's no way we're going to bring it back,
but there's nothing predictable about this political year," she said.
"Never say never."
House and Senate negotiators were working out the final details of
health care reform when the Massachusetts special election deprived the
Democratic caucus of the 60 votes it needed to break a GOP filibuster
and pass the final bill.
That could lead Democrats to use reconciliation, which requires only
50 votes. Once that decision has been made, deciding to go for the
public option is less of a leap.
"It is very likely that the public option could have passed the
Senate, if brought up under majority-vote 'budget reconciliation'
rules," reads the letter. "While there were valid reasons stated for
not using reconciliation before, especially given that some important
provisions of health care reform wouldn't qualify under the
reconciliation rules, those reasons no longer exist."
The major obstacle to reconciliation has always been the fear that
popular insurance reforms would be carved out and ruled unrelated to
the budget. But the Senate has already passed those particular reforms.
The House could pass them and send them on to the president, then pass
the package of reforms that moves through reconciliation.
It's a long-shot, but not impossible. And it's just the kind of
aggressive action that voters showed they want in Massachusetts, said
Pingree, and have long been supporting in surveys. It's a matter of
political survival: "People will lose their seats because they want
Congress to deliver what it promises," said Pingree.
Polis said that the response has been "very exciting."
"There's enthusiasm that if a majority of senators are on board with
it, then we should go for it," he said. "I think the inclusion of the
public option would make that route much more attractive to House
Health care reform became less popular, Polis argued, when the
public option was taken out but the requirement to buy private
insurance or pay a fine remained.
"I think the fading of the public option from the Senate bill really
hurt the Democrats' prospects in the Senate [race], because they were
seen as following the typical pattern of tax and spend and caving to
insurance companies," he said.
Pingree and Polis both noted that Obama's focus on fiscal discipline
and cutting spending makes the public option -- which the Congressional
Budget Office estimates could trim more than $100 billion from the
deficit in ten years -- that much more appealing.
It would also give Democrats something else to run on in 2010.
The night of the Massachusetts election, three liberal groups --
Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and
MoveOn.org -- paid for a poll of
a thousand people who voted for Obama in 2008 and either switched to
support Republican Scott Brown for Senate or didn't vote. It was
conducted by Research 2000.
More than 80 percent of both groups favored a public option.
The poll also upended the conventional understanding of health
care's role in the election. A plurality of people who switched to
Brown -- 48 -- or didn't vote -- 43 -- said that they opposed the
Senate health care bill. But the poll dug deeper and asked people why
they opposed it. Among those Brown voters, 23 percent thought it went
"too far" -- but 36 percent thought it didn't go far enough and 41
percent said they weren't sure why they opposed it.
Among voters who stayed home and opposed health care, a full 53
percent said they opposed the Senate bill because it didn't go far
enough; 39 percent weren't sure and only eight percent thought it went
"The public option," said Polis, "is not dead."