Eight Senate Democrats are looking not only to finally approve comprehensive healthcare reform, they want to enact a federally run public option under a controversial procedure known as reconciliation.
The lawmakers — Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Al Franken (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — made their position known in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Too many people in Washington believe that just saying you are for health care reform is a substitute for actually getting something done,” says Bennet. “While some choose to stall progress under the pretext of principle, more and more Americans are losing the health care coverage they need. Coloradans deserve better than political leaders who care more about the special interests than the people we’re supposed to represent. They deserve a Washington that is more concerned about the thousands of dollars being lost by families struggling to pay for coverage than the millions being spent by special interests intent on stopping reform in its tracks.”
President Obama and many congressional Democrats support a public option to provide competition to private insurers. The House approved such a public option, but in December Reid abandoned a public option in order to hold onto the votes of all 60 Democrats that were in his caucus at the time so as to overcome a united Republican filibuster to approve a healthcare bill on Christmas Eve.
Since then, however, Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory in the Jan. 19 special election in Massachusetts to capture the Senate seat once held by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Brown’s election gives the Senate GOP a crucial 41st vote to sustain filibusters.
Although the House and Senate approved separate legislation, Democrats must now merge those differing bills into a single package to be approved and sent to Obama to sign into law. Brown’s new status now threatens to block that process.
A growing number of lawmakers, including the eight senators who wrote Reid this week, want Reid to use a procedure known as reconciliation to enable senators. Bills approved under reconciliation cannot be blocked via filibuster and need just a bare 51-vote majority to win passage.
Republicans have warned Democrats against using reconciliation to approve healthcare legislation, saying that doing so would be tantamount to a declaration of political war.
But there is a history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation, the senators argue in their letter to Reid.
“There is substantial Senate precedent for using reconciliation to enact important health care policies. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare Advantage, and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), which actually contains the term ‘reconciliation’ in its title, were all enacted under reconciliation,” they say. “The American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein and Brookings’ Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds jointly wrote, ‘Are Democrats making an egregious power grab by sidestepping the filibuster? Hardly.’ They continued that the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes is ‘much more extensive . . . than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days.'”
Also, the eight senators note, an overwhelming majority of Americans want a public option.
“The latest New York Times poll on this issue, in December, shows that despite the attacks of recent months Americans support the public option 59% to 29%. Support includes 80% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and even 33% of Republicans,” they write. “Much of the public identifies a public option as the key component of health care reform – and as the best thing we can do to stand up for regular people against big insurance companies. In fact, overall support for health care reform declined steadily as the public option was removed from reform legislation.”
The publisher of the news site, On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered the White House and Congress for more than a decade.