With the Senate hurdling toward a Thursday vote on health-care reform—and with passage all but a foregone conclusion—Democratic legislators and the White House are facing heat from the left wing of the party, which is angry over concessions in the bill and mobilizing furiously to reassert a liberal health-care agenda. Some, including Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern and Health Care for America Now, the coalition of pro-reform liberal groups, are playing realpolitik, focusing on the House-Senate reconciliation process ahead, in which there may be some limited opportunities to move the final legislation to the left.
Meanwhile, a group of outspoken netroots bloggers and activists are engaged in a seemingly quixotic bid to pressure progressive legislators to “ kill the bill” unless the conference committee reinserts the public-insurance option spiked by the Senate, a highly unlikely outcome. What’s clear is that none of the major players seem quite ready to lay down arms and let the Obama administration and congressional leaders call the shots. At least not yet.
“The fact is that there’s not going to be reconciliation. What people have to get their minds around is that we can still improve the bill in significant ways in conference.”
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and netroots leaders such as Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos and Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake are asking that the White House switch tactics and resort to budget reconciliation, a parliamentary maneuver that would allow a more liberal bill to pass with a simple majority of 51 senators, instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. On Tuesday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a lefty PAC with a 300,000-member email list, launched a “We Need a Hero” campaign, airing targeted television ads asking four senators—Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Al Franken of Minnesota, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio—to vow to filibuster any bill that comes out of the conference committee without a public option attached. All four of the senators have already released statements saying they will reluctantly support a public option-free bill, though Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, said he believes Feingold or Sanders are the most likely to be moved.
• Benjamin Sarlin: How Would Health Care Affect You? • Reihan Salam: What’s Next for the ‘Party of No • The Furies of Health Care For members of Congress, “it’s just a lonely place to take on the White House, but the White House right now has been undermining the public option and hasn’t been representing the will of the people,” Green told The Daily Beast. Within the first three hours, the PCCC’s online “We the Hero” petition had garnered 15,000 signatures. “We think nothing will galvanize progressives in the House as much as one bold progressive senator saying they will block any bill that blocks a public option,” Green said, calling the current reform plan a “corporate giveaway.”
The “kill the bill” rhetoric frustrates other progressives, who appear near ready to accept public option-free health-care reform as a pragmatic compromise. In a conference call last week, the SEIU’s Stern told reporters, “We have no belief that these senators are going to do any better” than they already have. Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of HCAN, said he would like the netroots to be realistic. “The fact is that there’s not going to be reconciliation,” he told The Daily Beast. “What people have to get their minds around is that we can still improve the bill in significant ways in conference.”
HCAN, which included a public option among its four founding principles, is now focused on using the death of the proposal as a bartering chip to secure other progressive priorities from the conference committee, such as a mandate requiring employers to provide health coverage, as well as more affordability subsidies to help poor and middle-class people purchase private-insurance coverage.
But the growing centrality of private insurers in the health-care reform plan is exactly why some have abandoned the current bill. An intensified anti-corporate rhetoric has engulfed the left since the public option was definitively lost last week. Hamsher, of Firedoglake, has taken to calling the Senate health plan “LieberCare” after Joe Lieberman, who effectively killed the public option, a policy intended to provide competition to the private sector, bringing down costs for consumers. On Tuesday, Hamsher noted on her blog that some health-care company stocks have jumped as much as 30 percent since the public option’s demise.
Some argue the populist rage is a fundamental misreading of what’s possible within the American health and political systems. “I’m a bit baffled by the recent anti-corporate anger among the folks opposing the bill,” said one Washington-based veteran labor insider, who asked to remain anonymous. “Once you take single-payer out of the equation, the insurance companies were always going to get their piece of the new business. Most of the people who are doing the loudest complaining on the left, thank goodness, have private insurance. Keith Olbermann and Howard Dean have private insurance. All this bill does is simply extend the logic of that to the people who are making a little bit above the poverty rate and who can’t afford to buy private insurance now.”
The protesting left has, surprisingly, joined many Republicans in their opposition to health-care reform. On Tuesday, Hamsher was received warmly on Fox & Friends, where she made common cause with conservatives who oppose the bill on tax-cutting grounds. Another Firedoglake writer, David Dayen, even compares the “kill the bill” movement on the left to the ultra-conservative “tea party” movement, which likens President Barack Obama’s agenda to socialism.
“There is a growing sense of anger at the banks that caused this financial meltdown that led to the recession,” Dayen said. “We see signs of economic growth, but it’s not trickling down to the people. We’ve seen this populism manifest itself on the right with the tea party movement. It was only natural that you would see a populist movement emerge on the left as well, because of the accommodations that have been made for corporate interests, and not just in this bill.”
Still, there is little doubt that liberal Democratic members of Congress will, in the words of House Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raul Grijalva, make a “tough swallow” and pass the watered-down legislation within the next several weeks. “This bill is too big to fail for Democrats,” said HCAN’s Kirsch. “I believe that you will see a bill pass before the State of the Union address that includes many improvements, with 60 votes in the Senate and 218 in the House.”
That’s the bare minimum number of votes required to send the bill to Obama’s desk, and an indication of just what a slog health-care reform has been—requiring a constant balancing act between intra-left debates and harsher attacks from the right. But as the debate shifts, in its final weeks, to one between activist and insider Democrats, there is at least one agreement uniting the progressive movement.
“It’s healthy to have substantive arguments the way we’re having,” Dayen said. “Because I haven’t heard much about death panels over the last week.”
Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women’s issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.