By Jeffrey Young - 12/18/09 12:44 AM EST
Organized labor will not stand in the way of the Senate’s healthcare bill, even though it isn’t pleased with the legislation.
The country’s two largest labor federations on Thursday issued
strong criticisms of the measure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
(D-Nev.) is trying to get off the Senate floor by Christmas.
The AFL-CIO did not go that far, but its exhortations that Congress
not give up on healthcare reform are predicated on the legislation
surviving the Senate.
Labor organizations are in a bind after spending millions of dollars
promoting healthcare reform during the 2008 presidential campaign and
throughout the course of this year.
The Senate measure, like its House-passed counterpart, includes
union priorities, such as extending healthcare coverage to 30 million
people and subjecting health insurance companies to strict new federal
regulations and consumer protections.
But the Senate bill also lacks provisions for which the SEIU and
others have fought, and includes a tax on high-cost health insurance
plans loathed by labor unions.
SEIU President Andy Stern nonetheless on Thursday said his union favors sending the Senate bill to a conference.
“We don’t like the bill. It has to be improved. But we don’t think
that these senators are going to do any better,” Stern said in a
The SEIU was on the verge of announcing stronger support for the
Senate bill Wednesday but backed out of a press event with AARP and
other backers of the legislation after Reid agreed to strip the bill of
key liberal priorities.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a more critical statement.
It did not explicitly oppose the bill, but also didn’t encourage the
Senate to pass it.
“Because it bends toward the insurance industry, the Senate bill
will not check costs in the short term, and its financing asks working
people and the country to pay the price, even as benefits are cut,”
Trumka said. “The House bill is the model for genuine healthcare
reform. Working people cannot accept anything less than real reform.”
Though tepid, the SEIU endorsement is an advantage to Obama and
Senate Democratic leaders, who have been besieged by outraged liberals
since Monday, when Reid bowed to centrist demands to keep the
legislation alive. By not calling on senators to vote against the
legislation, the AFL-CIO’s posture at least allows Reid and those
liberals already on board to keep up the pressure on the holdouts in
the caucus without fighting a major ally at the same time.
Health Care for America Now, a union-backed activism group, staged
pro-healthcare-reform events in 30 states Thursday, emphasizing the
unions’ priorities in healthcare reform.
Though different, the unions’ pragmatic tack contrasts with the
position taken by prominent liberals like Howard Dean, the former
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who has said it would be
better to kill the Senate bill because of the concessions, which
stripped a public option from the legislation. Other liberal groups,
such as the healthcare advocacy organization Families USA, have
endorsed the Senate’s bill while expressing a preference for the House
“We have a handful of senators who think that their points of view
are so essential that they should stand in the way,” Stern said. “Now
it is time for a couple of obstructionists to get out of the way.”
In a letter issued to union members earlier Thursday, Stern singled
out Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) for criticism, though he did not name
Lieberman’s staunch opposition to the public insurance program and
language allowing people over 55 to buy into Medicare prompted Reid to
abandon the two provisions.
“At the very moment that we saw real and meaningful changes within
our grasp, one senator came forward to say, ‘No, we can’t,’ ” Stern
But Stern said no senator should impede a vote. “I don’t think any
senator on either side has the right now to stand in the way,” he said.
Since Reid shifted the bill toward the political center, liberal
Sens. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Bernie Sanders
(I-Vt.) have withheld their support.
Stern acknowledged that getting a public option out of a
House-Senate conference committee might be a bridge too far. “It’s hard
to imagine it getting better in conference,” he said.
But the SEIU is hopeful that any final bill would do more than the
Senate measure to make insurance plans more affordable; the House bill
includes more generous subsidies.
Getting rid of the excise-tax on high-cost, so-called Cadillac
insurance plans will be difficult. The Senate bill depends heavily on
revenue generated by the tax — and the cost savings expected from
people switching to cheaper insurance to avoid it.
During his presidential campaign, Obama opposed subjecting all
health insurance to taxation, but White House officials such as budget
director Peter Orszag view the tax as one of the most important
cost-cutting measures in the legislation.
Nevertheless, during the conference process, Stern predicted that
Obama would back liberal demands. “We know where the president has
stood. He’s been consistent,” he said.
In his Thursday letter, Stern called on Obama to stick to his principles. “President Obama must remember his own words from the campaign. His call of ‘Yes We Can’ was not just to us, not just to the millions of people who voted for him, but to himself. We all stood shoulder to shoulder with the president during his hard-fought campaign,” Stern wrote.
This story was posted at 3 p.m. and updated at 7:44 p.m.