SEIU, AFL-CIO signal they won't stand in way of moving Senate healthcare bill

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.

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But the Services Employees International Union (SEIU) expressly urged Democrats to keep the process moving by passing the Senate bill in hopes that President Barack Obama and congressional leaders can nudge it back toward the left during the conference committee process.

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 teleconference.

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 version.

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Stern blasted individual senators from both sides of the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum for holding up progress.

“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 him.

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 wrote.

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.