By Ian Swanson - 08/31/09 05:40 PM EDT
Labor leaders on Monday called on Congress to pass healthcare reform legislation in honor of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“We’re going to organize and honor Ted’s legacy by fighting like Hell for healthcare reform,” Sweeney said at a Washington rally for healthcare reform at the union’s headquarters
Gerald McEntee, AFSCME’s president, also invoked Kennedy’s name, saying to applause that union members “can’t let Ted Kennedy down” and must push forward for healthcare reform.
“Because of him, our destination is in site,” McEntee said, “but we’ve got to keep working. We can’t let Ted Kennedy down. We can’t let America down.”
Some Democrats in the House and Senate have also urged their colleagues to support healthcare reform in the name of Kennedy, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) suggested legislation be re-named in Kennedy’s honor.
This has drawn criticism from conservatives, who say Democrats and healthcare reform advocates should not politicize Kennedy’s death to move healthcare reform forward. Some have said that if Democrats really want to honor Kennedy, they should remember his reputation for making a deal and offer Republicans substantive concessions to get them on board.
After the rally, Sweeney told The Hill that Democrats should not make concessions on including a public insurance option in healthcare legislation as a way of winning Republican support for the bill.
“I think that, for the program to be successful, they there really has to be a public option,” Sweeney said. “It’s important for competition.”
He acknowledged that Kennedy’s reputation as a master of making compromises on legislation to move bills forward, and said the union would be willing to look at proposals.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Sunday said Kennedy would have been willing to make compromises on healthcare reform to win its passage. Kerry said Kennedy would have done everything in his power to win legislation with a public option.
“But if he didn't see the ability to be able to get it done, he would not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He would not say no to anything because we have to reduce the cost,” Kerry said on “Meet the Press.”
Obama administration officials have suggested a willingness to move healthcare legislation without a public option, but liberals in the House and Senate have warned they will oppose legislation that doesn’t include it.
Proponents of the public insurance option say its creation is necessary to ensure there is increased competition for private insurers, which would drive down costs. Opponents argue it would cause the private industry to go out of business, and would lead to government-run healthcare.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said a public option will be included in House legislation, but it’s not clear there are enough votes in the Senate for the public option to pass that chamber.
Sweeney and McEntee spoke at a rally that ended AFSCME’s “Highway to Healthcare Reform” bus tour, which visited 19 cities across the country to tout the need for reform.
Unions and other groups with ties to the Democratic Party are making a concerted effort to hold rallies and events to offset town halls across the country where conservative opponents of healthcare reform have received attention.
The two union leaders attacked the health insurance industry in their remarks Monday, and argued they were behind town halls where Democrats and Republicans ran into constituents angry about healthcare and government spending.