Left eases threat to kill health bill

Liberal groups and labor unions have pulled back from calls to kill the Senate healthcare bill.

Left-leaning senators are coalescing behind the legislation, tailored to centrist demands, that would expand healthcare coverage to more than 30 million Americans but would neither create a government-run insurance program nor expand Medicare to people younger than 65.

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House Democrats and liberal interest groups are hoping to win a few concessions in conference, which is expected to wrap up in time for Obama to tout the completed bill during his first State of the Union address in January.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who will participate in bicameral healthcare negotiations, said he was glad the party’s base is putting pressure on lawmakers.

 “We need that left pressure,” said Waxman, who added that senators need to understand that “we’re not just going to take their bill but we’re going to work to make it better.”

Republicans, sensing the strong wind developing behind the Democratic legislation, have stepped up efforts to stall progress on the Senate floor and force the majority to miss its goal of passing the bill before the Christmas holiday.

The most visible sign came Wednesday when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) insisted clerks read a 767-page amendment, a task that would have taken eight to 10 hours.

But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the amendment sponsor and a leading liberal proponent of the public option, quickly withdrew his amendment.

But later on Wednesday, Sanders said he could not vote for the bill “as of this point.”

“As of this moment. I am going to do my best to make this bill a better bill, a bill that I can vote for but I’ve indicated both to the White House and the Democratic leadership that my vote is not secure at this point,” Sanders told Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto. 

Some liberals are firing salvos at their grassroots counterparts. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), a leading Democrat, slammed former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, who a day earlier called on liberal senators to “kill” the Senate bill. Rockefeller called that approach “nonsense” and “irresponsible.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has questioned his leaders’ approach to healthcare reform from the start, has also gotten behind the new bill, declaring this week that conservatives and special interest groups who oppose the bill would pop champagne corks in celebration if it failed.

But leading House liberals have threatened to take down the bill if they don’t win concessions in conference.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the 83-member House Progressive Caucus, said if the final healthcare bill does not include “some semblance of the public option” or a repeal of the antitrust exemption for insurance companies, “it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to support.”


Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), the other co-chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus, said Obama “promised the country healthcare reform, and this is not healthcare reform.”

Woolseys’ comments reflect growing frustration among some liberals that Obama has not fought hard enough for the public option and other reforms they favor.

“One very widely felt sense among progressives is that this is Barack Obama’s fault,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Obama refused to fight for the public option.”

Green noted that Obama did not travel to Connecticut or Maine, the homes of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), respectively, to campaign for the public option.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) on Tuesday told The Hill it would be wrong to blame Lieberman for watering down the Senate bill because “this bill appears to be legislation that the president wanted in the first place.”

Democratic lawmakers, labor officials and liberal leaders have pronounced themselves “very disappointed” with the Senate bill, but they have stopped short of backing Dean’s call to kill it outright.

In a surprising development Wednesday, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) pulled out of an event planned with other organizations to promote the Senate bill. SEIU and other unions are concerned about concessions Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made to win the support of Lieberman and Democratic centrists.

An official at one union said labor leaders were still trying to decide how they would respond publicly to the latest developments in the Senate bill.

But while labor unions are holding back support, they are not inclined to launch a campaign to scuttle the legislation.

Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, a coalition of groups including SEIU, the AFL-CIO and MoveOn.org, said the goal now is to improve the legislation in Senate-House negotiations.

“We’re looking for the conference committee to make improvements on a host of issues,” he said.

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Senate Democrats have talked about a short conference with the House to speed final passage of the healthcare reform bill and give Obama something to tout at his State of the Union address. They expect to have enough votes to pass the bill through their chamber because of the concessions made to centrists.

But strong pushback from the base signals that talks between the chambers will be more complicated and time-consuming than expected.

Some leading liberals acknowledge that a government-run insurance program is unlikely to win 60 votes in the Senate, but they think many other provisions they favor in the House bill can pass the Senate.

They are pushing for Senate negotiators to accept the higher subsidies the House has set aside for people earning below 400 percent of the federal poverty level.

They would also like the Senate to reduce the tax liabilities posed to middle-class families by accepting more of the House’s plan for raising revenues, which shifts a greater share to the nation’s highest income earners.

Liberals would also like the Senate to accept the House plan for establishing a national insurance exchange. The Senate bill would set up insurance exchanges at the state —instead of the national — level.

Another demand is for the Senate to accept the employer mandate contained in the House bill, which would impose a broad requirement on businesses to provide healthcare benefits to employees.

Liberals are also calling for the Senate to accept more stringent prohibitions on insurance companies imposing coverage caps on customers and match the House proposal to expand Medicaid to cover people earning up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line.

“A lot of progressives in the House are inclined to vote no,” said Mike Lux, a political strategist for liberal groups. “If progressives bargain hard and push back, things in the healthcare bill could be improved.”

 
Jeffrey Young contributed to this article.