Public option splits Democrats wide open on health care
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.