Thursday 1 October 2009

You can’t slap the “public option” label on just anything

Maria Cantwell’s amendment, which the Finance Committee just approved, is really an exchange, not a public option. States can opt out of the plan under certain conditions, it only applies to people making 30-40,000 a year for a family of four AND don’t get employer-based coverage, it still puts states at the mercy of private insurers which has never worked, and it still didn’t get Snowe’s vote. This is not really a public option, but the Democrats may call it that and accept it for now, so they can claim “even the Finance Committee passed the public option, so now let’s just fix it on the floor or in conference.” Carper and Wyden are also floating compromises labelled “public option” but they also allow states to opt out (Wyden’s language also in theory allows states to set up single-payer – neat!). Obama is lobbying Democrats to vote for the Finance bill, bad as it is, with the aim of fixing it later.

Reid is singing the same tune regarding the battle on the Senate floor, saying the bill will have a “public option” without specifying, even remotely, what that means. Likewise Pelosi is saying we’ll have a “public option” but we don’t now what form it will take.

So Obama’s strategy is getting clearer: pass something labelled “public option” in Finance, and something kinda like “public option” on the Senate floor, and then keep pushing things to the left in conference. When they talk to the House, it will need to be more of a public option than the Cantwell amendment: Pelosi already rejected triggers and coops, and is unlikely to accept a fake public option, either.

At least we needn’t worry about the Republicans anymore. Harkin openly admitted that the Republicans won’t even be in the room when the final bill is negotiated, which is unsurprising since McConnell and McCain both admitted today that no Republican will vote for the bill regardless of what’s in it. They had their chance.

We still need to watch the cloture issue: it is because of that that we are only getting Public Option Lite at this stage. Lincoln wouldn’t even vote for Cantwell’s ersatz “public option” – maybe she’s decided she’s doomed for reelection and is auditioning to be an insurance lobbyist – so Obama (or perhaps Clinton) needs to sit her down and tell her the rules. Likewise Obama let Lieberman keep his committee chair for just such an eventuality, so now Lieberman needs to pay the piper and back his caucus on cloture. This whole thing reminds me of the stories of the Polish parliament a few hundred years ago: they could only pass a bill with unanimous support, so they never got anything done. Now, with the Republicans stonewalling absolutely everything on health care, and clearly capable of doing the same on any other initiative in the future, passing legislation means perfect unanimity among the 60 Democrats. That’s why we need to (a) eliminate the filibuster weapon, and (b) elect more Democrats.

Don’t let these parliamentary issues distract us from the reality of this question: we can’t just support some crap with a “public option” label slapped on it. We need real public option, or at the very least, a good plan that is like a public option -- even if it’s a coop rather than a government-run plan, it must be national and guaranteed for all, which Cantwell doesn’t provide. The American people probably don’t even understand what “public option” means, but they will recognize a crappy plan if they see it. If it isn't going to be a public option, it's got to be a really good fake, a very close approximation.

The saving grace is that Obama knows, and said publicly, that he can’t sign a crappy bill: after all the sturm and drang this summer, the American people expect to see a decent plan that will help them. And Obama can’t allow a crappy bill even to reach his desk, because a veto is a loss. He can fix the bill on the floor, in conference, or in reconciliation, but even though he has three lifelines he doesn’t want to waste one – he’d like to get a decent bill out of the Senate the first time, without playing the reconciliation card. So he will start pushing the bill to the left as soon as Baucus’ interminable deliberations finally end. He is in fact involved in the process of drafting the floor bill, the first of the three stops along the way to his desk.

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