SEIU turns to tribes to pressure Baucus

Labor officials are recruiting Native Americans in Montana to put pressure on Sen. Max BaucusMax BaucusThe mysterious sealed opioid report fuels speculation Lobbying World Even Steven: How would a 50-50 Senate operate? MORE (D-Mont.) to support a broad government-run health insurance plan as part of the Senate’s healthcare reform package.
 
Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been reluctant to embrace a broad public insurance option because Republicans strongly oppose it and he wants to attract broad GOP support for his package. Republicans charge that a widely available public option would lead to single-payer health care and “socialized” medicine.
 
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Baucus has also felt pressure from business groups to find an alternative to a broad public insurance option.
 
Native Americans make up about 6 percent of Montana’s population, but they have taken on greater political significance in the past year. President Obama's campaign devoted significant resources to organizing tribal residents and the state became an unexpected battleground in last year’s presidential election.
 
Labor unions and Native Americans have rarely teamed up on broad national issues, such as the public health insurance option. Nevertheless, officials at one of the nation’s most politically powerful unions, the Service Employees International Union, have decided to launch a multi-front campaign to press Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
 
"We want Baucus to keep a strong public option — health insurance option — as part of his package and to make sure he addresses the specific needs of Montana, which has wide open spaces and where it's tough to get healthcare,” said Robert Struckman, an SEIU official based in Montana.
 
“Some people have to drive three hours one way for a doctor’s visit," he said.
 
SEIU has formed a partnership with the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation in eastern Montana and is working on a similar alliance with other Montana tribes and Indian associations, including the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

Struckman said “it’s not common at all” for unions to work closely with tribes on a national lobbying campaign directed at Washington. Although the two constituencies have little history of working together, Struckman said it helps his cause that Obama was able to energize Native American audiences last year. The president has also called for a robust government-run healthcare option.

“He walks the racial divide and he can talk to people who walk the racial divide and when he speaks to them there’s a real impact,” Struckman said of Obama's resonance among Native American audiences.
 
Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf said the senator is attuned to the healthcare concerns of local tribes.

"He is aware of the unique health care issues in Indian Country," said Matsdorf. "Max is currently reviewing health care proposals from national Indian organizations, including proposals from the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Health Board, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, and other Indian health care organizations throughout the United States.  

"Many of the healthcare concerns affecting tribes in Montana are addressed in these proposals.  Max will continue his work to ensure that healthcare reform legislation is right for Montana’s tribal communities, Montana, and the nation.”

James Lopach, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Montana at Missoula, said Democrats made “a real attempt to increase registration and turnout” among Native Americans in 2008, the biggest such push he could remember.
 
“In a close election, the tribal vote could be a real consequence,” he said.
 
Lopach said that Montana’s tribal reservations are hotbeds of internal politics. But he said that Native-American lobbying activities in Washington tend to focus on Indian-specific issues such as gambling rights, water rights and funding for Indian health services.

The public option is the subject of a much broader debate pitting Democrats against Republicans, and could alter substantially the delivery of healthcare for all Americans.
 
“Usually when they’re involved in Washington it has to do with a policy that clearly affects the tribes,” Lopach said.
 
He said the political groundwork laid in 2008 has created the foundation for this year’s grassroots lobbying campaign.
 
Baucus, who was elected to a sixth term last year, has felt heat from a coalition of liberal and labor groups working in Montana that favor a widely-available government health insurance program.

The coalition of unions and liberal groups, named Montanans for Healthcare, has urged constituents to contact Baucus and urge his support for the public option. Molly Moody, a Montana-based organizer affiliated with Montanans for Healthcare, said those efforts have intensified in the last month.

The AFL-CIO, SEIU, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and chapters of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are participating in that coalition.