Senate

Democrats give Warren's 'Medicare for All' plan the cold shoulder

Senate Democrats are distancing themselves from Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) "Medicare for All" plan, casting doubt on whether it could pass even if she does win the presidency.

Warren rolled out her proposal for Medicare for All last week, instantly fanning the flames of a raging debate among the Democratic presidential contenders over the idea.

But even if Warren wins the presidency and Democrats take back the Senate next year, her proposal would still face long odds of actually being enacted given objections among many senators of her own party.

Some Democratic senators on Tuesday said flatly that they would not vote for Warren's plan if she were president in 2021. 

"No, I wouldn't; I've said consistently that I am not for Medicare for All," said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who faces a tough reelection race next year. A victory by Jones would greatly help Democrats reach a Senate majority.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said "not as I understand it" when asked if he would vote for Warren's plan.

The proposed elimination of private insurance and its trillions of dollars in tax hikes are prime reasons Democrats cite for rejecting her approach.

Many Democratic senators said they prefer an optional government-run insurance plan, known as a public option, more along the lines of what former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg are proposing.

"I'm not about to take away private insurance from the union members who have worked so hard to negotiate for it," Menendez said.

The Medicare for All legislation sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a progressive rival to Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, has support from some Democratic senators, but most are not backing it. The bill has 14 Democratic co-sponsors in addition to Sanders, out of 47 members of the Senate Democratic Conference.

Democrats must win a net gain of three seats and take the White House to gain the Senate majority in 2021, a high bar. If they do, they are expected to have a narrow majority, where only a few Senate Democrats would be enough to kill ambitious liberal proposals even if the party abolished the filibuster to allow measures to pass without Republican support.

And it is not just a handful of moderates who have concerns with Medicare for All, but many mainstream Senate Democrats. 

Asked if he would vote for Warren's plan in 2021, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) doubted it would come up for a vote at all.

"I don't know that we'll have a chance to do that; I think we'll take up our own proposals," he said. "I'm for universal coverage, I'm for building on the Affordable Care Act. My preference is to move forward on a public option."

If Democrats controlled the Senate, he added, "I think we would look to build on the Affordable Care Act," rather than pass Medicare for All.

Warren, a top-tier candidate now seen as a favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, sought to address concerns about Medicare for All on Friday by emphasizing that her $20.5 trillion plan would not include any middle-class tax increases. She said it would instead be funded by redirecting what employers already pay for health insurance and new taxes on the wealthy.  

Warren and Sanders also emphasize that Medicare for All would expand coverage to everyone and would eliminate premiums and deductibles, providing much more generous coverage to the millions of people who struggle with high out-of-pocket costs under the current system.

Asked by a reporter in Iowa on Monday how she would get Medicare for All through the Senate, Warren said the election results would send a message.

"When I win, I will turn around to all of my Democratic colleagues and say this is what I ran on," Warren said, according to a transcript provided by her campaign. "It's there. And that's what the majority of the people in the United States said they wanted."

She acknowledged that "there have to be compromises" in Congress. "But we've gotta come together after this primary, we've gotta come together for the 2020 election," she added. "And then, we have to deliver what we run on."

Some Democrats fear that Medicare for All is a liability in the general election. An optional government-run plan polled better than full-scale Medicare for All in a September Kaiser Family Foundation survey, which found 69 percent support for an optional plan and 52 percent support for the full-scale government plan.

"I line up with Joe Biden. I want to make sure that the Affordable Care Act works," said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has endorsed Biden. "I supported a public option. I still do."

Carper and Cardin both declined to say definitively if they would vote "no" on full-scale Medicare for All legislation if it came to a vote.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) objected to Medicare for All's elimination of private insurance, saying there need to be "reforms to the private health care marketplace" but that "elimination of that option" is the wrong approach. 

Medicare for All has more support in the House, where about half of the Democratic caucus has signed on to the leading bill.

But the top House Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), raised concerns with the idea last week, telling Bloomberg, "I'm not a big fan of Medicare for All."

Some Democrats think it is smarter for the party to focus on the winning message that helped the party gain back the House last year and highlight Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. President Trump is supporting a lawsuit to overturn the entire law that is currently making its way through the courts. 

"There are differences on the Democratic side about how fast to get to universal coverage, but Trump wants to take people's health insurance away," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Cardin noted that a Democratic president would certainly have some sway on which way the party goes on health care, but that the ultimate decision would be up to Congress.

"That's what's great about the American system, the independent branches of government," he said.

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