Weekly Pulse: Obama to Push for Reconciliation

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Today, President Barack Obama will deliver a speech to Congress outlining his plan to move forward on health care reform. The president is expected to advocate the use of budget reconciliation.

Art Levine of Working In These Times warns that some centrist Democrats are already getting cold feet on reconciliation. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, went on TV to declare reconciliation impossible. These guys just don’t get it. It’s reconciliation or defeat. There is no other way. Without reconciliation, the bill dies. Without a bill, the Democrats get massacred in the mid-term elections.

Health care reform to date

Quick recap: The House and the Senate have both passed health care reform bills. The original plan was to merge those two bills in a conference committee and send the final version back to both houses of Congress for a vote. However, the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate when Republican Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley in the special election in Massachusetts.

Once they recovered from their shell shock, Democrats reluctantly converged around Plan B: Let the House re-pass the Senate version of the bill, thereby skipping the step where the Senate votes on the conference report. However, the Senate bill could not pass the House in its current form. So, the Senate needs to tweak the bill to make it acceptable to the House—either before or after the House re-passes the Senate bill. In order to make those changes without getting filibustered, the Senate Democrats will have to insert the modifications through budget reconciliation, where measures pass by a simple majority. Whew!

Of course, the Republicans trying to paint Democrats as tyrants for using reconciliation. Nevermind that 16 of the 22 reconciliation bills passed since reconciliation was invented in 1974 were passed by Republican majorities.

Whither the Public Option?

Reconciliation would appear to give the public health insurance option a new lease on life. The House bill has a public option, but the Senate bill doesn’t. The public option was traded away on the Senate side to forge the original filibuster-proof majority. As a procedural matter, the public option could easily be reinserted during reconciliation because it has such a direct impact on the federal budget, i.e., it would save the taxpayer a lot of money. The White House claims to support a public option. Yet Obama didn’t propose one in his health care plan last week.

Some observers take that as a sign that the White House doesn’t think the votes are there. (Cynics say it’s proof the White House never cared about the public option in the first place.) Even Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told radio host Ed Schultz that he can’t support a public option for fear of killing the health care bill, according to Jason Hancock of the Iowa Independent. Harkin has been taking a lot of heat from progressives for refusing to join with other senators in signing a letter calling for a public option.

Abortion Storm Clouds

Speaker Nancy Pelosi had little to say about how she plans to overcome resistance within her own caucus on abortion and immigration issues within health reform, as Brian Beutler reports for TPMDC. Pelosi needs 216 votes to pass a bill. The original House bill only passed by 5 votes. Rabid anti-choice Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) claims to have assembled a coalition of like-minded Dems who consider the Senate’s slightly less restrictive rules for abortion funding “unacceptable.” There is no reliable public vote count on how many of these representatives, if any, would vote to kill health care over abortion. If they do, it would be purely out of spite. Abortion language can’t be tweaked in reconciliation because it doesn’t directly affect the budget.

Stupak and the myth of federal funding for abortions

In The Nation, Jessica Arons takes a closer look at Stupak’s radical and misleading anti-choice rhetoric. The federal government is already legally barred from funding elective abortions, and nothing in the Senate bill would change that. Arons explains that the Senate bill would allow plans that participate in the federally-subsidized exchanges to offer abortion coverage provided that customers buy that coverage with their own money, not with subsidized federal dollars. If the government pays 30% of the cost of the policy and the consumer pays 60%, the money for abortion coverage comes out of the consumer’s end.

There’s a long tradition of segregating government money. Both Planned Parenthood and Catholic hospitals get federal funds. By law, Planned Parenthood can’t use that money to perform abortions, but it can use it to do pap smears and offer other health care. By the same token, a Catholic hospital can take federal money to provide medical care, but not to proselytize to patients. Arons ably satirizes Stupak’s extreme position:

If everyone thought like Bart Stupak, a woman seeking an abortion:

(1) would not be able to take a public bus or commuter train to an abortion clinic, even if she paid her own fare;

(2) would not be able to drive on public roads to a clinic, even if she drove her own car and paid for her own gas;

(3) would not be able to walk on public sidewalks to the clinic, even though she paid property taxes;

(4) would not be able to put her child in childcare while she was at the clinic if she received a tax credit that offset the cost of childcare;

(5) would not be able to take medicine at the clinic that was researched or developed by the government, even if she paid for the medicine herself.

Bunning backs down

In other health care news, AlterNet reports that yesterday Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) ended his one-man filibuster of the extension of a bill that would have prevented a 21% cut in Medicare reimbursement rates and extended unemployment benefits while the Senate finalizes the jobs bill. Bunning caved under pressure from his own party. Even Republicans realized that there was no political percentage in stiffing doctors and the unemployed.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.


Rangel "Temporarily" Resigns Ways & Means Chairmanship

Charlie Rangel has temporarily stepped aside as Chairman of House Ways and Means (the counterpart to Senate Finance). From CNN:

The 20-term New York Democrat told reporters he had submitted a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requesting a temporary leave of absence until a broad-reaching House ethics committee investigation concludes.

Rangel had told reporters Tuesday night he had no plans to step aside from his powerful post. The Ways and Means Committee is responsible for drafting the nation's tax policies.

Rangel is being investigated for, among other things, failing to pay taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic. He was formally admonished Friday by the House ethics committee for violating rules on receiving gifts. Specifically, the committee found that Rangel violated House gift rules by accepting reimbursement payments for travel to conferences in the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

Politico says , “With Rangel stepping aside, it's not clear who will take the chairmanship.” CNN says not so fast: "A source told CNN on Tuesday that if Rangel stepped aside, senior Ways and Means Democrat Pete Stark would take over as the committee's chairman 'on a temporary basis.'" First Read adds, "Eventually, it's probably going to be [Rep. Sandy] Levin, but Stark may get it temporarily if Rangel simply gives it up temporarily. But for the long term, Levin is the preferred choice among the Dem leadership. And even if Stark gets the gavel, his health problems may prevent him for truly running the committee, giving Levin de facto control."

This is allegedly a temporary “leave of absence,” but then again, Tom DeLay always planned on returning to his leadership post, too.

This is a wonderful turn of events. We don’t need the albatross of corruption around our party’s neck come November, and we don’t need it around our government’s neck, well, ever. Rangel, corrupt or not, is a buffoon who doesn’t grasp important policy details, doesn’t pay attention to ethics rules, and vehemently denies that a Congressman is responsible for his staff. We don’t need that in Congress.

It took an indictment to strip Bill Jefferson of his plum assignments. It’s good to see our party moving in the right direction on this – tougher action, and for no less than a close ally of the Speaker. That's not only tougher action than we've taken with other members in recent memory, it's also more than anything the Republicans can claim they did in 2006.

The new, “temporary” Chairman, Pete Stark, has a history of controversial and racially insensitive statements. He’s also no ethical peach himself, currently under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics for his own tax issues. The National Journal says he is but the 140th most liberal member of Congress. Still, anyone’s got to be better than Rangel, even if not by much.

Reid, Pelosi Ought To Let The Sunshine In

Created in 1979, the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (or C-SPAN as it is more popularly known) is a must for concerned citizens wanting to keep tabs on what lawmakers are doing in Washington. Since its inception three decades ago, countless hours of congressional hearings, political conventions and rallies, debates, and other public affairs events have appeared on the C-SPAN networks in a pure, uncut and unfiltered manner.

Recently, C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb sent a letter to Democratic and Republican congressional leaders requesting that C-SPAN's cameras be allowed into the final negotiations of the 2,000-page, multi-billion dollar health care bill.

Lamb's letter, which was sent to most media outlets including the blogs, said that reforming the nation's health care system affects every American and as such should be televised in order to further facilitate a transparent discussion on health care reform.

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C-SPAN CEO Asks Pelosi & Reid For Transparent Health Care Coverage

C-SPAN, the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, is a must for those concerned citizens who want to keep tabs on what their government is doing in Washington. Created by cable in 1979, C-SPAN provides thousands of hours of coverage to congressional hearings, political rallies, conventions, debates and other public affairs events from across the nation in a pure, unfiltered, uncut format.

Throughout 2009, C-SPAN showed both sides of the debate over health care reform. From the tea parties to the health care rallies to final votes in the House and Senate, C-SPAN has been there. As the health care legislation inches towards final passage, it is imperative that C-SPAN continues to shine a bright light on all our government's proceedings. However, C-SPAN may not be able to fulfill its unique role to the American people if congressional leaders decide not to open the doors of government to transparency.

Tuesday morning, C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb emailed a letter to the media (including this blogger) expressing his concern a final health care bill might be written behind closed doors and away from the inquisitive eyes of the public. The letter was addressed to the Democratic and Republican leaders -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Republican Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Below is the full text of the letter along with some additional commentary:

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Is The Public Option Gone? Do I Care?

From Salon's Alex Koppelman:
"Well, what I said -- it is a two-part statement that quotes what the President has said. We believe, we in the House believe that the public option is the best way to hold insurance companies honest -- to keep them honest and also to increase competition. If there is a better way, put it on the table," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference, in response to a question about her August comments."As soon as we see something in writing from the Senate, we will be able to make a judgment about that. But our standards are that we have affordability for the middle class, security for our seniors, closing the donut hole and sustaining the solvency of Medicare. Responsibility to our children, so not one dime is added to the deficit. And accountability of insurance companies. We will take a measure of that bill in those regards." These comments are being portrayed as Pelosi outright abandoning the public option. Clearly, she wasn't quite that definitive. But she's certainly leaving the door open to the Senate deal, and -- especially given these remarks -- it wouldn't be at all surprising to see her come out in support of it fairly soon. If the agreement is the only way any bill passes the Senate, it's not like she has much choice in the matter.
I like the public option. It would decrease health care costs in this country which are on track to gobble up more than 30% of the GDP. That said, I also agree with Nate Silver:
The energy by progressive activists on behalf of the public option has done more good than harm, and by a wide margin... In terms of the present compromise on the table, it seems to be quite clearly better than a bill without the Medicaid/Medicare expansion, the Franken Amendment, etc., but with a weak public option… Liberals have tended to underestimate what a significant political achievement it would be for Democrats to pass such a major bill that has become rather unpopular with the public. It would be going too far to characterize the Democrats as courageous for passing health care reform (if they do), because at the end of the day, the political case for passing health care reform is probably stronger than the case for failing to do so.
We need activists in this country to make the facts clear and present the best bills possible. We also need realists and pragmatists who will pass the best bills possible - and the best possible writing and the best possible passing are not always the same thing. The point of the activists is not to write the laws, but to make the pragmatic picture that Congress deals with as progressive as possible. Our goal is to change lives and to help people. Supporting only perfect bills that don't have the votes, and thus leaving the status quo in place, helps no one. Chris Bowers has said that activists, by demanding a public option, improved the bill, and that it's now time to pass the compromise rather than the public option. Meaning, the public option's place was not to be passed, but to improve the compromise that will be passed: "Covering 16-17 million more people on public health insurance than current law, among an overall decline in the uninsured population by 30-35 million, with a cut in health insurance industry waste and profits from 30% to 10%, is, in my estimation, much better than the status quo. Public insurance rolls will be increased, lives will be saved, and industry profit margins will take a real hit." I don't see anything wrong with any of that (although I don't know how true that last point about industry profits is).

We didn't obsess over the public option during the campaign and I'm not going to obsess over it now. Yes, a bill without it won't bring costs down as much, but that's okay - with costs climbing as high and as fast as they are, there’s no way Congress can’t not return to the subject later. It would be much easier, however, to ignore the second problem, the uninsured, for many more years just as we’ve been doing since the days of ClintonTruman Teddy Roosevelt. This is our moment to address the uninsured. This is only one of many moments to address cost. I’m not going to die in the trenches over the latter if that means sacrificing our own opportunity to accomplish the former. A bill without a public option is not a great thing, but you try telling the tens of millions of uninsured it would cover that it’s a bad thing.

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