Coburn, Vitter want to force Congress into public health plan

Two of the Senate’s most ardent opponents of a public health program, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and David Vitter (R-La.), are preparing an amendment to force members of Congress into any plan that is passed.

As the Senate formally takes up the healthcare reform bill this month, Coburn and Vitter are drafting legislation that mimics a resolution Vitter unsuccessfully offered in August that would have required lawmakers to join any public option plan.

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The current amendment would go further — not only barring members of Congress from exempting themselves from a public plan, but actually forcing them into it. Vitter is also considering proposing banning physician services currently available to legislators at the Capitol as well as special privileges they are allowed at military hospitals. Specifically, members of Congress receive taxpayer-subsidized medical care at Bethesda Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Vitter plans to announce the amendment on Friday. Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) has introduced a similar measure in the House.

“The idea, broad-brush, is that whatever government option is in the bill, every senator and every representative should be enrolled in it,” Vitter told The Hill. “No other possibilities, no other choices.”

“It’s called leadership,” Coburn said. “If it’s good enough for everybody else, we ought to be leading by example.”

Currently, members of Congress have a variety of healthcare plans and providers available to them under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, although senators have been considering some type of congressional requirement as part of any bill. Vitter said he did not know when a vote would be likely, as Republicans are currently organizing their amendments “thematically” in preparation for the coming floor debate.

Vitter compared the amendment to an unsuccessful effort by former Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), who pushed a measure in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that barred Congress from receiving any benefits that were better than those mandated in the bill. The measure passed, 93-4, but was dropped during conference negotiations.

Vitter also said he sees a similarity to legislation that he and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have introduced to repeal the automatic cost-of-living pay raise that Congress receives every year.

However, Vitter said he is not optimistic the measure will stay in the final bill, noting that there have already been efforts to put such language into the Senate’s various versions of the healthcare legislation.

Indeed, the idea was opposed unanimously by Democrats during interviews on Thursday, and even two senior Republicans said they disagreed with the Coburn-Vitter amendment because it would restrict choice — a key criticism the GOP has been using against the Democratic-written healthcare bills.

“I don’t like the government forcing anybody to do anything,” said GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.). “A government-run program is not going to be good. Why would I want to put my family in that, let alone anybody else’s family?”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) also said he opposed the amendment, although he endorsed its intent.

“I don’t think it has any chance of passing, but it does send a message,” Cornyn said. “My impression is they’re trying to make the point that people ought to be given more choices rather than less, and if this is good enough for the American people — and they don’t think it is — then it ought to be good enough for Congress.”

Democrats called the Coburn-Vitter effort “a world-class gimmick” that undercuts the party’s effort to create more choices and also allow Americans to keep their current plan.

“The whole point of what we’re trying to do is create more choice, and that would include keeping the plan people have now,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). “I understand the point they’re trying to make, but I can’t support that.”

“What they want to do is to try to have us say ‘no’ and then say, ‘Why, isn’t it good enough for you?’ " Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) said of Coburn and Vitter. “The fact is they oppose the public option and they want to ridicule and diminish it.”

There were exceptions. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Ron Wyden of Oregon said they supported the idea. Brown said he is even trying to co-sponsor the amendment — but that Coburn and Vitter won’t let him.

“They’ve not said yes to allow me to be a co-sponsor,” Brown said. “I’ve called their office four times. I’m proud of the public option, I think it would be great and we ought to join it and show the country how good it is. I think my interest may be more genuine than theirs, but I’d like to work with them if they’ll let me. If they just want to score partisan points, I still want to work with them.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a Finance Committee member who is helping lead efforts to stitch together a centrist healthcare bill this month, said he even tried to duplicate Coburn and Vitter’s efforts but met with stiff resistance.

“I sought to take what works — the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan — and open it up,” Carper said. “Ironically, I got opposition from the left because people said, ‘If we do that, we can’t have a public plan,’ and we got opposition from folks on the right, who said, ‘That’s a public plan and we’re opposed to that.' "

Vitter said he remains opposed to a public option component as part of any healthcare bill and that his amendment should not be interpreted as support. He repeated a common GOP criticism, that such a plan would quickly dominate the insurance industry and force private insurers to drop coverage.

“If there's this brave new world where coverage is guaranteed one way or another, a lot of people are going to get dumped,” he said. “That's just competitive and economic reality. The rule for this should be the same as it is for doctors: First, do no harm.”