Senate liberals defend healthcare votes

From an editorial board meeting in Ohio to scheduled town halls in Vermont, Senate liberals are spending January’s early days defending the healthcare reform bill they helped pass.

While much of the public focus has been on the handful of Democratic centrists who had wavered on the $871 billion bill that passed on a 60-39 vote on Dec. 24, liberals like Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio and Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont are on the defensive as well.

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The sources and substance of the criticism has varied. Brown, for example, was pressed during a Toledo Blade editorial board meeting last week about a $100 million payout in the bill to cover expanded Medicaid services in Nebraska.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had tucked the provision into the bill to win the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), but Brown told the Ohio paper editors, “You can bet that won't be law by the time that goes into effect.”

Most of the criticism of liberals has come from left-wing advocacy groups angry at the bill’s lack of a public option. Such a component was dropped from the measure earlier in December.

To that end, Brown and Sanders, along with fellow liberal Democratic Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, are on the receiving end of a three-pronged push by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). The liberal group is airing ads on the Internet that target all four, plus robocalls aimed at Sanders and Feingold, as well as a TV ad in Wisconsin also aimed at Feingold.

PCCC co-founder Adam Green says the so-called “We Need a Hero” campaign is not intended harshly but strategically focuses on the liberals because only one of them is needed before the final Senate vote.

“At this point, the only thing that will change the bill is if one bold senator drew a line in the sand and said they wouldn’t vote for it without a public option,” Green said. “This is the time for that to have an effect. So far, we’ve seen progressives draw a line in the sand and then walk away from it. So we’re not questioning their motives, but we’re pushing them.”

Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report who analyzes the Senate, said it’s not surprising that liberals couldn’t escape the spotlight of criticism.

“A public option was a major priority for progressives, so this definitely means they’ve got something to say,” Duffy said. “And they’ll probably continue to fight for it, because the game isn’t over yet. So you’ll see them put pressure on members who did support it to get them to hold out.”

The PCCC phone calls in Vermont and Wisconsin — totaling 10,000 calls a night — are the only real criticism Sanders has faced over the bill’s lack of a public option, said Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs. Briggs said Sanders plans a round of town hall meetings in the coming weeks to explain the bill, and has been public about his disappointment that a public option isn’t in the bill.

“Would he prefer it be included? He’s always said yes," Briggs said of Sanders. “But is it important to provide health insurance to 31 million more Americans? Yes.”

Brown has taken a similar line of defense, proclaiming the bill “not perfect” but saying he had “about 31 million reasons” to support the bill anyway.

“This bill is a good bill, but it’s not great," Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “A public option would have made it better. A Medicare buy-in would have made it better. But we weren’t able to do that.”