Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Daily Strike-9/29/09-Public Option Setback

Good evening and welcome to the Daily Strike. Today was not a good day for advocates of the Public Option. Let's get to the day in politics. Please leave some comments.

FINANCE MARK UP: Today was the most important day yet in the Senate Finance committee. The committee voted on two amendments related to the public option, and the outcome makes all of us progressives dismayed and a bit angry. First, the details. All three committees of jurisdiction in the House have passed bills with public options. Two of those committees voted for a public option that reimburses providers based on Medicare rates. This is what's referred to as the "robust" public option, because it would give the government real bargaining power to force private companies to lower rates. It would also bring down the cost of reform by an estimated $80 billion, which in theory, should make it a no-brainer to fiscal conservatives. Rural Representatives are against the robust public option because they think it unfairly reimburses rural providers at low rates. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Senate HELP committee, passed public options that's rates were not tied to Medicare. Instead, rates are to be negotiated with individual providers. This is better than our current system, because it introduces some competition into the market, but it does not introduce enough competition to sufficiently bring down prices. Democrats on the Finance Committee tried both of these approaches. Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) proposed an amendment to include a public option tied to Medicare rates. If that amendment failed, as expected, Democrats would settle for a Schumer (D-NY) amendment that would be a so-called "level playing field" public option where rates would be negotiated with individual providers.

Democrats have a 13-10 advantage on the committee. Despite this advantage, the fact that a clear majority of Americans favor the public option, and the pleas of the Democratic base, both amendments failed. The Rockefeller amendment came up first. Rockefeller gave an impassioned defense of the public option, saying that it was the only way to check the power of private insurance companies. Republicans gave the expected response: the public option is a government takeover of health care that will lead to rationed care. Senator Conrad (D-ND) echoed his Republican cohorts by saying that Medicare reimbursement rates would bankrupt hospitals in his state (no evidence that would happen). The Rockefeller amendment failed by a vote of 8-15. Democrats Baucus (MT), Conrad (ND), Lincoln (AR), Nelson (FL) and Carper (DE) voted no. All Republicans, including moderate Senator Snowe (R-ME) voted against the amendment. This vote was discouraging, but not unexpected. Conrad had made these arguments before, Lincoln is in a tough reelection race next year, Nelson and Carper prefer a public option not tied to Medicare rates.

The next vote was far more discouraging. Schumer's (NY) amendment is a compromise of a compromise. Progressives, who won last year's election I might remind you, already conceded that we wouldn't get a single-payer system. We had basically conceded that we couldn't get a robust public option tied to Medicare rates, a la the Rockefeller amendment. Still, Democrats on the Finance committee could not muster the votes to include any sort of public option in the bill. On this vote, Carper (DE) and Nelson (FL) switched sides. Lincoln, worried about her political future, voted no. Baucus and Conrad, though, opposed the amendment for reasons that just totally confound me. In a true case of twisted logic, Baucus and Conrad opposed the amendment because they think the amendment would bring down the whole bill. In their view, any bill with a public option won't get 6o votes in the full Senate, so they shouldn't let it come out of the finance committee. If both Baucus and Conrad had switched their votes, the amendment would have passed in committee, and would have much brighter prospects on the Senate floor. These two Senators, in my view, are hiding their industry-influenced opposition to the public option behind the false notion that Democrats don't have the votes to pass a public option. Democrats now have 60 votes in the Senate. If Baucus and Conrad didn't act in such a way that made the public option seem "radically liberal," maybe these Democrats might actually vote like Democrats.

Here's The Big Pictures take:

Beyond what the public option would actually do, it's clearly THE symbol for how even Democrats will defy the good of the country, not to mention their own professed goals, and public opinion, purely in service to corporate backers and "what sounds good" ideology. I think that's what has people so angry about it - it just sums up progressives' frustration with the Democratic Party, corporate power, the way the media obscures the truth, how narrow corporate interest and ideological buzzwords stand in the way of what people really need.

This is a pretty dark day. Some of our worst fears coming true. At this point it was pretty expected but it is still very distressing. We can win elections by big margins and get 60 votes in the Senate and yet can't even do the most watered-down form of government health care, the compromise of a compromise of a compromise of a compromise.

Despite today's setback, the public option is not dead. Whatever comes out of the Finance committee will still have to be merged with the HELP committee bill. That bill then must be reconciled with the House bill. Also, there's still a chance that the Senate could adopt Senator Snowe's idea of including the public option as a fallback if the private companies don't make necessary changes. But, today was a sad reminder that even with a Democratic President, and large Democratic majorities in Congress, it is enormously difficult to enact meaningful change.

The committee continues it's work late into tonight and will continue in the morning. We'll bring you continuing coverage as more key amendments are considered tonight and tomorrow.

THE SENATE: As for the full Senate, it was a relatively quiet day. The Senate voted 99-0 (with only ailing Senator Byrd (WV) absent) to confirm Jeff Viken as a District Judge in South Dakota. Tomorrow, the Senate will vote on the Legislative Branch Appropriations conference report, which is also the legislative vehicle for the continuing resolution. In plain English, that means that if Senators vote yes, the government won't shut down when the fiscal year ends tomorrow night. Following that, Senators will resume consideration of the Defense Appropriations bill, which we talked about in this morning's Weekly Strike.

THE HOUSE: It was a quiet day in the House as well. Members voted on a few suspension bills, and a motion to instruct conferees on the Agriculture appropriations bill. I expect tomorrow to be an equally uneventful day on the House floor.

THE WHITE HOUSE: President Obama had a mostly uneventful day as well. He met this morning with NATO Secretary General Rogh Rasmussen to discuss NATO commitments in Afghanistan. Both Obama and Rasmussen said the meeting was productive, but neither elaborated on the details of the discussion. I would expect Obama to make some announcement in future plans for Afghanistan in the coming weeks, as lawmakers from both parties are growing skeptical about ongoing war efforts.

Before we go, we offer you a special treat today, I want to show you some comments Father Strike gave in response to my unenthusiastic reaction to Obama's trip to Copenhagen to push for the Chicago 2016 Olympics. Father Strike makes some compelling points here. The Big Pictures then chimes in (small black font) with an opposing view. As Bill O'Reilly might say, "you make the call."

FATHER STRIKE: I disagree about going to Copenhagen. You and I can do our jobs from home now and the President can do his from AF One. He loses only part of one work day. Why would it be ok for Tony Blair or Putin to go, or for leaders of Chicago's rivals for the 2016 slot to come to Copenhagen for that matter, but not for Obama. I know that there is a risk involved, that the trip is unsuccessful. However, it very well may be: the last two Olympics were in Europe and Asia and 2012 will be in London. I'd guess that our chief rival is Rio.

THE BIG PICTURE: I agree that this Obama Copenhagen trip is pretty ridiculous. In general he really needs to get back to focusing on JOBS here at home. It's always seductive for Presidents to want to focus on foreign policy because they have so much more uncompromised power, little checks and balances, compared to domestic policy, but that has been the ruin of many a President. Really needs to be touring the rust belt and Appalachia and Sun Belt suburbs, seeing what's going on, reassuring people, explaining what we're doing and why.

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