Wednesday, September 30, 2009

P. O.'d,, but Not Dead Yet

Two amendments to add a public option to the Baucus version of the health care reform bill failed in the Finance Committee (which Baucus chairs) yesterday. A "robust" p.o. (I use small letters, as opposed to "P.O.'d") amendment from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), which would give the new offering the level of discounts Medicare has for two years, fell by a 15-8 vote (all 10 Republicans, and 5 Democrats voting against), after a five-hour debate. Soon after, an amendment proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) which did not have that aggressive provision, fell by a 13-10 vote.

The three Democratic Senators who voted against the Schumer proposal were Baucus, Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) There will be a movement to demonize those three, and possibly to a lesser extent Sens. Carper (Del.) and Nelson (Fla.), who voted against the Rockefeller amendment but for the Schumer proposal. I don't like their votes, but I'm not quite ready to condemn them just yet.

Yesterday's votes mean that the bill which will be reported out of the Finance Committee will not have a p.o. in it (it will have money to support Conrad's pet co-ops, though), but that does not mean the end of the story. Strong p.o. supporters, like Rockefeller, Schumer, and Tom Harkin (Iowa) came out of the session encouraged by the vote and by the debate.

Unfortunately, the debate was not televised live, but from the snippets I saw of the debate, I would be encouraged, too. The arguments against the proposal sounded lame and unconvincing--for example, Orrin Hatch (Utah) complained that we'd be turning health care over to "the folks who destroyed the banks and the auto companies". I hate to give you the news, Orrin, but the private banking and auto companies who were destroyed did that all by themselves--the government is just coming around to pick up the pieces and try to put them back together. The proponents had all the good arguments on their side: more competition, challenging the health insurers' harmful practices, and the fact tha the p.o. is no entitlement program--it would be a self-sustaining, optional offering. If it's a weak one, it would be no threat to the private insurers, and thus insignificant.

The debate will go to the Senate floor, and the search will continue for a formula that can get enough Democratic votes to make it a winner--51 might well be enough, but they will try to get to 60 first. It was clear from the p.o. supporters that they will bring an amendment to the floor, and they claim to expect it to succeed. My condemnation will be for any Democrats who go against the p.o. in the floor vote, if it fails there; it will be fierce, and it will be backed up with my wallet. With regard to 2010, I've become a single-issue voter.

Clearly, a trigger approach will not do at this point; the p.o. will take time to gear up, and it is unclear how widely it will be available. A trigger approach means private insurers will be able to gouge the public more time--it implies they will not improve their methods.

On a discussion later that day on Jim Lehrer's Report on PBS, a freshman Democrat from Colorado made an interesting point: the Republicans could kill the public option if they got on board. If they continue with their unyielding opposition to the proposed legislation, the resulting bill--and there will be a bill--will be more unfavorable to them.

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