The number of senators looking to enact federally run public option health coverage through a controversial procedure known as reconciliation has doubled in just the last 24 hours, according to a progressive advocacy organization.
Eight additional members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have signed onto a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that was spearheaded by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), bringing the total number of signatories to 16, says an email from Democracy for America (DFA), an activist group that says its supporters are pushing lawmakers to endorse the effort.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Roland Burris of Illinois, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Tom Udall of New Mexico are the senators who signed on in the last 24 hours, according to DFA.
They join Bennet, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) who had already signed the letter to Reid.
“At a time when there is deep skepticism and mistrust of the private insurance industry, when just last month a major health insurer in California announced it would raise its premiums by a whopping 39 percent in one fell swoop, the American people have made it clear that they want the option to buy their insurance through a Medicare-type, government-run public insurance plan,” says Sanders, a left-leaning independent.
The DFA email encourages supporters to next push Mikulski’s Maryland Democratic colleague, Sen. Ben Cardin, to sign the letter.
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 healthcare reform legislation, Democrats still must 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 16 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.
“The public option is not just important for the individual consumer, it is an important mechanism to provide competition for the private, for-profit health insurance industry, to keep them honest, and to lower the overall cost of health care in our country,” Sanders says. “I am very pleased to join with my Senate colleagues to urge passage of a public health insurance plan using the budget reconciliation process.”
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.’”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.