Daily Pulse: Baucus Coughs Up a Bill

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium Blogger

Big news broke over the weekend: Evidently, the president lit a fire under Max Baucus (D-Mont) and the Senate Finance Committee by unexpectedly announcing last week that he'd be laying out his own vision for health care reform this Wednesday. Just weeks ago, committee member Kent Conrad (D-ND) predicted the Finance Committee wouldn't have a bill until November. But Baucus circulated a legislative framework over the weekend.

Baucus's bottom line: There will be no public option. Instead, the government will spend hundreds of billions of dollars to subsidize the same old expensive, inadequate private insurance system that health care reform was supposed to reform. The insurance companies get 46 million new customers, and in return, they will pay higher taxes to offset the cost of the subsidies--a kickback to Uncle Sam.

Last week Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo and I sat down to discuss some burning questions in health care reform: What's the president's thinking on the public option? What leverage does he have over the progressives in the House who demand single payer and/or the Blue Dogs in the senate who reject it? Why is Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) the last best hope for bipartisanship? (The transcript of our discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

You said the [week of September 1] really stood out from the last month in terms of the health care debate. How so?

Maybe the last two days just stood out from the previous month. ... Obama's approval [rating] slid and popular support for the idea of healthcare reform slid. And August came to an end and the President's vacation is winding down, and suddenly the administration realizes that Congress is coming back and they are going to have to do something. And so, it seems they start leaking to a bunch of high profile reporters that they are going to perhaps ditch the public option as part of a grander move to regain control of the debate.

Are the anonymous leakers saying in so many words that they want to ditch the public option?

Well, it's unclear what they are actually going to do. The Public Option would die with dignity. [If] that is accomplished, the President could maybe win over some Republicans, grab the debate and spell out in clearer terms what he wanted [beyond] the public option. He could do this all in a big speech for Congress which is scheduled to happen Wednesday.

Isn't this just a repeat of what we saw during the week of August 20, when the White House seemed to be doing a good cop/bad cop routine where an anonymous aide would leak "to hell with the liberals and the public option" and then another adviser would say on the record how much the president loves the public option?

It could just be a replay. Once those stories came out, the picture sort of fogged up. [There were] secondary reports that the President was courting Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) again--as if maybe one Senate Republican would vote with him on health care reform. Snowe's idea [includes a] public option, but you attach it to a trigger mechanism so that it is only enacted if the rest of healthcare reform is unsuccessful at bringing down prices and expanding coverage. And that's sort of been unacceptable to reformers and progressives, but ... that might be the pound of flesh that she yields from the bill. It fits in with the picture that the leakers painted ... that the public option was no longer going to be one of the key features of the bill.

You wrote about how budget reconciliation could be used to get around the filibuster. How would that work?

The greater problem is the structure in the Senate, where legislation can pass with a majority vote--but only after Senators have debated the bill for as long as they want. As long as 60 Democrats aren't there to shut the minority up, debate can go on and on and on. [ED note: AKA filibustering.] And for every major piece of legislation you see. this happens. ...

There's this de facto 60-vote rule on most legislation, at least in this Congress and the previous Congress since the Democrats took it over. It's extremely difficult to pass a bill through just the regular procedure without either having to concede a bunch of substantive provisions ... or just give up on the bill entirely. [There are] 59 members of the Democratic caucus right now, and maybe 10 of them are mushy on the more progressive part of the President's agenda. Even if all of them are onboard, you're still one vote short of what you need to end debate. And that is why Olympia Snowe matters right now.

So the House would pass the bill and the Senate would pass a bill with budget reconciliation?

They could in theory. Budget reconciliation is sort of like a magic bullet. Every year, the Congress can pass what is known as a budget reconciliation bill. It sets new taxes, or moves money around within the federal budget to basically do what the Congress's budget lays out. It ... was made exempt from the filibuster because Congress [has to] set a budget. ... They need to make sure that money is there and can't have Senators filibustering it just because they're in a fit of peak. So that bill can't be filibustered, but at the same time, the legislation that can be passed in it has to be relevant to the budget, it has to move money around in some way.

So you can pass a lot of elements of healthcare reform in theory--you can pass subsidies to poor people and middle-income people. And you can pass Medicaid expansion, and you might even be able to pass the public option because the public option may need subsidies of its own and could drive down other costs and be a big moneysaver.

How might the president pressure progressives into accepting the bill?

My sense is that the President [will pressure] progressives to back off on the public option. But that could change. Trying to figure out what is going to happen is kind of like trying to move 23,000 moves ahead in a game of 17 dimensional chess. ...

[Obama can] say is that what he's planning will, while not perfect, help a lot of people make the healthcare system more progressive than it was. ... But it would really harm the democratic party and his presidency if the whole project failed and nothing passed. Obama doesn't have a tremendous amount of leverage. [Many] progressive members of Congress are progressive because they don't have viable challenges. They come from progressive districts, with constituents like them, approval ratings in the 60s, 70s, and they aren't going to lose to a member of the opposite party. So in that sense, they can do what they want.

How can Blue Dogs say that progressives should suck it up and vote for every bill when they are never prepared to do the same thing?

... It would at least be a good experiment, for the party and the country, for the [Blue Dogs] to be put on the spot. They believe that their jobs are on the line if they vote for controversial legislation. I don't know how those conversations go when political members of the administration confront these guys and say 'You got into politics to make the world a better place, not to just have a tenure job on Capital Hill. So you're going to vote yes on this and if you lose your jobs as a result, then you did the right thing and we'll make sure that the Democratic party infrastructure is there for you ... .' But that's not the way the party thinks. [It's a] game of building an unstoppably large coalition, and that becomes the goal in the end. And at some point you lose sight of why you are amassing this giant congressional majority and you're never willing to say, well we built this 70 whatever majority so that we could sacrifice some of these seats and do something really impressive and progressive for the good of the country.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care and is free to reprint. Visit  Healthcare.newsladder.net for a complete list of articles on health care affordability, health care laws, and health care controversy. For the best progressive reporting on the Economy, and Immigration, check out Economy.Newsladder.net and Immigration.Newsladder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

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MyDD Interview with Byron Dorgan

On Wednesday June 17, I had the opportunity to speak with North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan about his new book "Reckless!: How Debt, Deregulation, and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How We Can Fix It!)", as well as a whole range of topics in front of the 111th Congress, including healthcare and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

Below I have pasted a rush transcript of the interview, the questions from which were culled from among those submitted through Twitter @jonathanhsinger. You can also download the audio of the interview as a large .mp3 file or listen to it using the player below:

Jonathan Singer: Your fellow North Dakotan Kent Conrad is trying to advance what he calls a compromise on healthcare that would have co-ops as opposed to a public option. What's your feeling about that?

Byron Dorgan: Well, he and I have not discussed that. I do think it's an effort to find some sort of middle ground. The Republicans have indicated, almost all of the Republicans have said the public option is off the table for them. They could not and would not support it. So it's useful to take a look at alternatives. The question is, are these workable alternatives? And I don't know all the details of the cooperative proposal. But I think it's an inventive way to try to see if there's some potential agreement in areas.

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8: The Mormon Proposition (Interview w/ director Reed Cowan)

CB:  When did you decide you were going to be the one to make "8: The Mormon Proposition" and what factor(s) drove your decision?  What aspects of your own background or of the Prop 8 campaign brought you to this project?

RC: Truthfully, this film started out as an exposé on the problems of gay teen homelessness in Utah's "Zion" and an examination about WHY otherwise loving parents would kick their kids out on to the streets just because their kids are gay.  But as the weeks and months unfolded in our project, I began seeing that history demanded our project be larger in scope.  Slowly, but with great force, our focus shifted to what I believe is the "touchstone" of Mormon ideology regarding homosexuality...and that is exclusively Mormon efforts to get PROP 8 on the ballot in California and see its passage.  It's the case against Mormons and what I believe has been a decades long work to damage gay people and their causes.  

PROP 8 is truly the most obvious, shining example of what is at the root of Mormon belief about gay people.    As to what factors drove my decision to make the film what it is today, they were personal really and deeply rooted in something that is fundamental to my character.  Human suffering cuts me to the quick.  And when I obtained the entire LDS call-to-action broadcast (transcripts and audio) that was heard by thousands in California, as a former Mormon myself, I knew statistically speaking, that at least ten percent of the Mormon youth who heard the call to action, were gay.  I hurt over the thought of what they must have felt sitting in those pews, hearing their church leaders launch an assault against gay people.    I went in the direction of the fires of their pain, and it's my prayer this film will be a part of putting out the fire of that pain in their lives.  What the Mormons did and what they continue to do against gay people needs to be a matter of record, because it is spiritually criminal.  When these young people sitting in the pews grow up, I hope they can turn to my film and get the message that it's OK to leave the organization that pulls them to its breast tenderly, while choking the spiritual life right out of them through assaults on their very civil rights.

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MyDD Interview with Gavin Newsom

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to speak with Gavin Newsom, the Mayor of San Francisco and a candidate for Governor of California in 2010 -- the first in what I hope to be a long series of conversations with candidates running for office during the current cycle (which itself is a continuation of interviews posted on this site over the past four and a half years). The questions for this interview were culled from among those you posted here at MyDD and posted via Twitter @jonathanhsinger.

During our conversation, Mayor Newsom and I spoke about a range of topics, including the current budgetary mess in California, the need for constitutional reform in the state, and Proposition 8. You can listen to the interview or read a rush transcript below, or download the audio as a very large .mp3 file here.

Jonathan Singer: The first question is pretty simple. Is California governable?

Gavin Newsom: Absolutely yes, with a significant provision that we need to dramatically look at reforming the governance in the context of looking at structural reforms and looking, as I have long believed, at opening up a framework around a constitutional convention to address those reforms.

But I do believe that we're at a point that in absence of those reforms it's becoming more difficult to govern the state, but by no means is it unmanageable and ungovernable. I have never accepted that proposition. Incidentally, that's exactly what people said about San Francisco for many, many years and I just don't buy the proposition.

Singer: Does the next Governor in order to succeed to get the mandate - whether it's through a constitutional convention or a referendum of some sort - does the next Governor have to run on that in 2010 to make sure that happens?

Newsom: I think by definition if you believe in it you should run on it. If whatever it is you support, let folks know what you're supporting and be forthright and deliberative about it. But the answer is yes, if you believe in opening up an honest and thoughtful and deliberative debate about civil service reform broadly. About structural reform specifically. About looking at entitlements. And looking at the system of governance, be it the two-thirds requirement on taxes/budget. Looking at issues as difficult as Prop 13, or as challenging as the need to reform Medi-Cal, which I believe is long overdue. Or prison reform. These things need to be discussed in a campaign honestly and forthrightly.

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Questions for Gavin Newsom?

With the 2010 electoral cycle beginning to gear up, I'm setting back to the enjoyable task of interviewing candidates and elected officials all around the country for MyDD. (You can read through the dozens of interviews I have done for the site over the years, if you're interested.)

Later this afternoon, I will have the chance to interview Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's Mayor and a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California. I will be posting the transcript and audio of our conversation tomorrow, but before then I'd like to know what would you like to see me ask him. Send me your questions via Twitter @jonathanhsinger or leave them in the comments here at MyDD.

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