Pub­lic op­tion splits Democrats wide open on health care

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - By Joe Curl

Demo­crat lashed out at Demo­crat on Sept. 30, in­ter­rupt­ing, snub­bing and diss­ing each other be­fore splin­ter­ing over the is­sue of . . . a pub­lic health care op­tion?

Af­ter months build­ing up to the mo­ment when the one-time core of Pres­i­dent Obama’s health care agenda would take cen­ter stage on Capi­tol Hill, Se­nate Democrats quickly de­volved into petty in­tra­party bick­er­ing — not qui­etly, in pri­vate, but right there in the ca­pa­cious Room 216 of the Hart Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing.

“Could you ad­dress what your amend­ment does with re­gard to the set­ting of prices?” Sen. Bill Nel­son of Flor ida asked fel­low Demo­crat Sen. John D. Rock­e­feller IV.

“I will not an­swer that ques­tion,” a miffed Mr. Rock­e­feller said. “I want to fo­cus on my amend­ment.”

“I’m giv­ing you bou­quets,” the Florida se­na­tor said sweetly. “I want you to help me.”

“But I want you to fo­cus on this amend­ment,” the West Vir­ginia se­na­tor said. “I as­sume it’s go­ing to pass unan­i­mously,” he added con­fi­dently as Day Five of the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee de­bate opened.

Mr. Rock­e­feller’s amend­ment sought to tie the gov­ern­men­trun health care op­tion to Medi­care lev­els of re­im­burse­ment, but that drew a re­sound­ing boo from Sen. Kent Con­rad, who claimed ev­ery ma­jor hospi­tal in North Dakota “goes broke” if the amend­ment passed.

“I can’t pos­si­bly sup­port an amend­ment that does that,” he said.

Later, Sen. Jeff Binga­man de­manded de­tails of the pro­posed amend­ment, prompt­ing an im­pas­sioned de­fense by Mr. Rock-

efeller that left the New Mex­ico se­na­tor speech­less. “You’re not go­ing to re­spond?” the West Vir­ginian asked in­cred­u­lously. “Oh, I’m glad to re­spond,” Mr. Binga­man said.

Repub­li­cans en­joyed the cir­cu­lar fir­ing squad, with Democrats snip­ing about minu­tiae within the Rock­e­feller amend­ment. More, though, the out­num­bered Repub­li­cans saw the pub­lic dis­sent as a rea­son to ques­tion the en­tire premise of a pub­lic op­tion — which nearly ev­ery com­mit­tee Demo­crat said is sup­ported by 70 per­cent of the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

“If it was so pop­u­lar, why are there so many Democrats that have a prob­lem with it?” Sen. John En­sign, Ne­vada Repub­li­can, asked. “Why is it caus­ing your side so much con­ster­na­tion of not be­ing able to get the bill through? I think the rea­son is be­cause it’s not pop­u­lar.”

Sen. Or­rin G. Hatch, Utah Repub­li­can, also used the amend­ment to in­struct Democrats on a sim­ple les­son: “Wash­ing­ton is not the an­swer,” he said.

What was clearly un­pop­u­lar among com­mit­tee Democrats was the pub­lic op­tion pro­posed by 25-year vet­eran Mr. Rock­e­feller. Just af­ter lunch, his amend­ment went down in flames, with only eight ayes to 15 nays (five Democrats, in­clud­ing Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Sen. Max Bau­cus, joined all 10 Repub­li­cans to vote against the plan).

A sec­ond amend­ment on the pub­lic op­tion, of­fered by New York Demo­cratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer, also failed, on a 13-10 vote.

The pub­lic op­tion, pushed by Mr. Obama but left out of Mr. Bau­cus’ first draft of com­mit­tee leg­is­la­tion, is in­tended to force in­sur­ance com­pa­nies to be more com­pet­i­tive, thus driv­ing down prices. Even though the com­mit­tee went on to de­bate an­other fed­eral op­tion, it was an in­aus­pi­cious start on the is­sue as Democrats were forced to re­ject the first ver­sion.

Just be­fore the vote, hav­ing heard a slew of reser­va­tions from his fel­low Democrats, Mr. Rock­e­feller still tar­geted Repub­li­cans as the ob­struc­tion­ists, say­ing his col­leagues on the other side of the ta­ble “pick out the small­est thing, ridicule it.”

“They’re ner­vous about it be- cause it’s got the word ‘pub­lic’ in it,” Mr. Rock­e­feller said. But the se­na­tor said “the peo­ple I rep­re­sent need this, they’re help­less” against in­sur­ance com­pa­nies, which he said are “get­ting away with ban­ditry.”

Lib­eral Democrats have bat­tled for the pub­lic op­tion, but heated town hall meet­ings across the coun­try over the sum­mer found Amer­i­cans not par­tic­u­larly sup­port­ive of the idea.

Oddly, the Demo­crat who heads the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee did not seem at all put out.

“My job is to put to­gether a bill that gets to 60 votes” in the full Se­nate, Mr. Bau­cus said. “No one shows me how to get to 60 votes with a pub­lic op­tion,” he said.

He’s got a long way to go. So far, he’s got just eight votes.

Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@wash­ing­ton­


Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee mem­ber Sen. John Kerry, Mass. Demo­crat, left, talks with com­mit­tee chair­man Sen. Max Bau­cus, Mon­tana Demo­crat, Sept. 30 prior to the start of the com­mit­tee’s hear­ing on health care re­form leg­is­la­tion.


Democrats’ ‘pub­lic’ squab­ble: Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee mem­ber Sen. Jeff Binga­man, New Mex­ico Demo­crat, pauses dur­ing the com­mit­tee’s hear­ing on health care re­form leg­is­la­tion on Sept. 30.

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