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Progressives Will Face Tough Health Care Reform Choice

Posted by Alan on July 29, 2009

Just looking at the broad facts, liberals should be riding high. President Barack Obama occupies the White House. Democrats hold a 60-40 super-majority in the U.S. Senate and a commanding 256-178 majority in the House (with one more on the way after a special election in California later this year). Republicans are on an electoral losing streak of epic proportions and have yet to find a unified voice. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Except appearances can be deceiving and liberals will soon need to decide whether they are willing to vote for a bill that, in their view, improves America’s health care system but does not go nearly far enough or should they leave the system the way it is.

Note: This post was updated on July 30th to provide more details concerning the House Energy & Commerce Committee compromise and liberals reaction to it. Additions are presented in italics.

The evolution of health care reform legislation as it moves through Congress must frustrate progressives. It started off to their liking. Senator Edward Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee pushed forward a bill that satisfied much of the liberal wish list. Good times continued when the House Ways & Means and the Education & Labor Committees passed equally progressive bills. That the affirmative votes on all three committee came exclusively from Democrats was not of great concern to supporters. Health care reform was coming whether Republicans wanted to join the parade or not.

Liberals were on a role, but then their moderate and conservative colleagues began to make their presence felt. And there are more of them than is generally acknowledged. While conservative talk show hosts like to brand the Democrats as a monolithic subsidiary of Mao-spouting communists, the reality is far different (actually, reality is usually different than that described by conservative talk show hosts, but that’s a topic for another day).  A party does not capture 60 percent of the Senate and 59 percent of the House by running cookie cutter candidates all pledged to the same ideology. The country is too diverse. The brilliance of Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and now White House Chief of Staff, was that he discarded virtually the entire Democratic litmus test in his search for candidates. The only significant requirement he demanded of the candidates he recruited was that, once elected, they would vote for a Democrat for Speaker of the House. Meanwhile, the GOP who hewed closely to the beliefs and principles of their base. Moderates were scorned and labeled RINOs (Republicans in Name Only). They succeeded in recruiting ideologues who had no chance of winning outside the reddest of red districts.

Consequently, the Democratic caucus is chock full of moderates and even conservatives.  Which all but guarantees that liberals will be disappointed. There are simply not enough liberals in Congress to pass a bill without support from moderates.

So it should not have been a surprise when problems developed as the progressive juggernaut moved beyond some of the most liberal committees in Congress. The Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats in the House, objected to a host of provisions in the Ways & Means and Education & Labor bills. While they lacked the votes to hold up the legislation in those committees, they did such leverage in the the House Energy & Commerce Committee. The Blue Dog Democrats had an agenda for health care reform that differed in many respects from that of their more liberal colleagues.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee were working tirelessly to hash out a health care reform package that could garner bi-partisan support. To get there, Senator Max Baucus, Chair of the committee, was willing to jettison some of the more treasured elements of the liberal health care reform agenda.

Both the Blue Dog Democrats and the moderates on the Senate Finance Committee are making substantial progress. House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman and Representative Mike Ross, speaking on behalf of the Blue Dogs, announced an agreement that will allow the full committee to begin marking up health care reform legislation. The specific changes to the bill from the versions passed by the Ways & Means and Education & Labor Committees are not yet public. But there are four major elements according to wire stories:

  • Keeping the 10-hear cost below $1 trillion by agreeing to $100 billion in cuts
  • Preventing a public plan from simply imposing Medicaid rates by allowing physiicans and other medical providers to negoiate rates with the government plan
  • Exempting businesses with payrolls below $500,000 (86 percent of all small businesses)  from any government mandates requiring them to provide health insurance to their employees
  • Postponing a full House vote on health care reform until after September 8th

At the same time, Senator Baucus and the ranking minority member of the committee, Senator Chuck Grassley, are making it known they are close to unveiling the Senate Finance Committee’s compromise. Their proposal is unlikely to include a government-run health plan. It may not include all the mandates and subsidies liberals seek. In short, they will reform the health care system, but leave much of what exists in place. Which puts progressives in an uncomfortable position.

Moderates and conservatives seem willing to defeat any health care reform legislation rather than vote for the kind of reforms liberals seek. Will liberals refuse to support legislation that does not go as far as they demand? As of now they are threatening to do just that. The Progressive Caucus is circulating a letter seeking 50 signatures (enough to defeat any bill) pledging to kill any legislation failing to contain a strong public plan.

That’s not yet known. That the compromise proposals will be attacked from both the left and the right is to be expected. And liberals are already expressing outrage at having their wishes denied. For example, the Associated Press quotes Representative Lynn Woolsey  as saying “They can’t possibly be taking us seriously if they’re going to bring this [compromise legislation] forward.”

But will liberals insist on getting their way even if it means letting the status quo stand?

Ideology and pragmatism are often hard to reconcile, but my prediction is that liberals will vote for moderate health care reform. The reason: Senator Kennedy and President Obama will eventually accept a compromise. Throughout his career Senator Kennedy has demonstrated the political wisdom of taking half a loaf now and continuing the fight for the rest another day. And, according to the Associated Press story cited above, the White House is already making clear the Administration is willing to settle for a more moderate bill.

With Senator Kennedy and President Obama’s urging, enough liberals will accept that even modest reform is preferable to the status quo. They won’t be happy with what it contains, or more accurately, what it doesn’t contain, but they will be among those applauding when President Obama signs the bill into law this Fall.

Added 9:05 pm July 29, 2009: As noted above, liberals are upset over any compromise that does not include a public health insurance plan. In a post on Politico.com, Glenn Thrush reports that “Two months ago, most of the 80-plus members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus signed a pledge that they would oppose any health care bill that didn’t contain a bona fide public option that would compete with private insurers. On Wednesday, they seemed willing to stick to their promise.”  He goes on to quote Representative Barney Frank as saying liberals might reject the House leadership’s  request to support a weakened public option. “I don’t think it would pass the House — I wouldn’t vote for it,'” the post quotes Rep. Frank as saying.  No one would cheer louder than Republicans to see health care reform fail because moderate and liberal Democrats fail to come together. Which is, to repeat my prediction from above, why I think liberals will eventually take a deep breath, vote for a moderate bill, and come back in 2010 fighting for more.

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