Battle breaks out in California over single-payer healthcare

Battle breaks out in California over single-payer healthcare
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A $400 billion proposal to create a universal healthcare plan for all Californians is pitting state Democratic leaders against each other in an acrimonious fight that has even spurred death threats. 

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon last week shelved the plan, which the state Senate passed earlier this year. Rendon said the lack of a funding mechanism in the bill meant the package amounted to a shell, without the ability to actually deliver the care and coverage it promises. 

“There was really no there, there. It was a statement of principles, a list of values, a lot of values that I share, but it certainly wasn’t a bill,” Rendon told The Hill. “There was absolutely no funding attached to a $400 billion proposal, no service delivery mechanism.” 

The bill is not technically dead: California legislators work in two-year sessions, meaning the measure could come back to life when legislators meet in January.

But some supporters of the universal health care measure, led by the California Nurses Association, said Rendon was bowing to big industry groups that contribute to state Democrats’ political action committees. 

“It looked to us like the Speaker was carrying the water for the insurance industry and some Democrats who didn’t want to take the vote,” said Michael Lighty, the union’s director of public policy. “I think his intention is to kill it and he’s pretending like it’s not dead.” 

Supporters of the bill have organized protests of Rendon’s decision. A social media campaign sought to put pressure on Rendon in San Diego, where he is hosting a community meeting on Friday. 

But some of those supporters have crossed the line. Rendon said he had received death threats, and most columnists and political observers in Sacramento — even those on the left — have come down on the Speaker’s side.

“California badly needs political heroes, and we just got one: Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon,” Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton wrote Thursday. “He personally sent packing a so-called single-payer universal health care bill that was virtually all fluff with little substance. Then he was viciously attacked by the nurses union that pushed the bill, playing bully politics.” 

Rendon’s move will protect the moderate Democrats in his caucus, who feared a politically sensitive vote. Those Democrats have already passed a gas tax hike, and they face the prospect of raising revenue even more through a cap and trade deal Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is working to strike.

But the dispute highlights what appears to be a growing schism between liberal activists, largely fans of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Dems fear lasting damage from Clinton-Sanders fight MORE (I-Vt.), and more moderate Democrats who are part of the political establishment. Democrats have super-majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, and with no real threat from Republicans, the two wings of the party have turned on each other. 

That schism was evident in May, when the state Democratic Party’s convention erupted in protest after a Sanders-backed candidate for party chair lost a narrow race amid what she called a fraud-plagued election. The nurses union, which backed both Sanders and the losing state chair candidate, has threatened political retribution against centrist and moderate Democrats.

The “only ones pissed are Berniecrats who are no electoral threat,” said one longtime Sacramento Democratic operative who backs Rendon.

Rendon called Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D), one of the most powerful Democrats in Sacramento, to tell him he would shelve the bill. But Rendon, who supports single-payer health care in concept, said he had not heard from the Senate after asking the upper chamber to include a funding mechanism. 

“If a real bill had come to me from the state Senate, I definitely would have looked at it,” Rendon said. 

Senate Democrats reacted angrily to Rendon’s decision. Sources close to de Leon said the Senate president was furious that Rendon did not at least allow the measure a hearing. 

“None of the bills are ever cooked fully when the bills go to the other side,” one Senate Democrat told The Hill, asking for anonymity to describe internal debates. “Rendon just didn’t want to deal with the difficulty of policy-making.”

Rendon said the decision to delay the bill “was mine, and mine alone.” 

The debate has upended a usually harmonious relationship between state Democratic leaders, one that has led to perhaps the most liberally ambitious agenda in the country. De Leon and Rendon are more accustomed to battling with Brown, the more fiscally conservative governor, over budget figures than with each other over policy matters.