Democrats’ threats to hold healthcare reform hostage dominate the debate

The myriad of threats has been a headache for senior White House officials and congressional leaders who have to determine the difference between what lawmakers want and what they absolutely need in order to get them to “yes.”


The requested ransom has varied, ranging from language on a public option, abortion, Medicare payment rates and immigration. At times, different groups of Democrats have demanded opposing language on these and other issues.

That is why the House effort to pass healthcare reform stalled for months, and why Senate Democratic leaders are struggling to find a bill, any bill, that will get 60 votes.

While liberal senators such as Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownOn The Money: Senate banking panel showcases 2020 Dems | Koch groups urge Congress not to renew tax breaks | Dow down nearly 400 | Cuomo defends Amazon HQ2 deal Election Countdown: Florida fight ends with Scott, DeSantis wins | Dems see Sunbelt in play for 2020 | Trump to campaign in Mississippi ahead of runoff | GOP wipeout in Orange County | Ortiz Jones concedes in Texas House race The Hill's Morning Report — GOP victorious in Florida while Dems say `Sunbelt strategy’ looks bright for 2020 MORE (D) of Ohio, Roland Burris (D) of Illinois and Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOvernight Energy: EPA official steps down after indictment on ethics charges | Sanders to hold town hall on climate | Zinke slams 'environmental radicals' for fires Sanders to host town hall on climate change Sanders on 2020 White House bid: 'We're looking at it' MORE (I) of Vermont have threatened to oppose any final reform bill without a “strong” public option component, conservatives like Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut have vowed just the opposite: to block any bill that contains such a component.

Meanwhile, a Medicare buy-in provision for Americans between 55 and 64, drafted recently by Democrats like Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuLobbying world Former New Orleans mayor: It's not my 'intention' to run for president Dems grasp for way to stop Trump's Supreme Court pick MORE of Louisiana — also a public-option opponent — wasn’t good enough to satisfy Nelson or Lieberman. Both vowed on Sunday to oppose it, and the combined threats have led Democrats to the verge of scuttling both the public option and buy-in ideas. That may win the support of Nelson and Lieberman but imperil the votes of liberal members.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillWhy Democratic policies outperform Democratic politicians in rural America Josh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty Missouri New Members 2019 MORE (D-Mo.) on Sunday issued a new threat of her own, vowing to oppose any bill that swells the deficit and increases healthcare costs. Otherwise, she said, Democrats should go back to the drawing board.

 With few, if any, Republicans expected to support health reform, leaders have been forced to scramble to satisfy every member of the Democratic Conference in the Senate. It hasn’t been easy.

 “Everyone feels they are the 60th vote, and they’re exercising that power,” said one senior Democratic aide. “It’s not about the subject of healthcare, it’s about the numbers. If we had 63 or 64 votes, you wouldn’t see this. But because they feel empowered, the only thing to do is to take them all seriously.”

 That task has fallen mainly to Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man Nevada New Members 2019 Meet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time MORE (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinMultiple deaths in shooting at Chicago hospital Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks Overnight Health Care — Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines — GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing plan | Pfizer to raise prices on 41 drugs next year | Grassley opts for Finance gavel MORE (D-Ill.). The duo have divided up the list of senators with demands, with each handling his tasks in different ways. Reid prefers face-to-face meetings in his office, for example, while Durbin opts for phone conversations.

 Liberals like Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Overnight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term MORE (D-W.Va.) say they are frustrated with the trend because it can thwart needed legislation. During the Finance Committee debate on healthcare this fall, Rockefeller emerged as a passionate voice for a public option plan. After he said he couldn’t vote for the Finance panel bill — which did not include a public option — President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMichelle Obama's memoir is 2018's fastest-selling book at Barnes & Noble Dem bundler: Donors waiting on 2020 commitments until Beto O'Rourke makes decision Leon Panetta’s nightmare is today's national security crisis MORE met with him at the White House. Rockefeller subsequently voted for the committee measure.

On Monday night, as Democrats entered a caucus room with the idea of a public option all but gone, Rockefeller said he was frustrated that a single senator could decide its fate.

 “But when you have no votes to spare, everybody can be that if they want to be,” he said.

 Centrist Democrats like Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorMedicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation Ex-Sen. Kay Hagan joins lobby firm MORE of Arkansas, who has not issued any public threats on his vote for the bill, said he would be surprised if any senator followed through and stood alone as the single vote to block healthcare reform.

 “That would be a very difficult position to be in,” he said. “It depends on your convictions and your state, but that would be a very difficult position to be in.”

 But other centrists, like Nelson, said they would find such a position comfortable because their threats reflect their state’s politics.

 “I would say it like this: How would I feel voting for something that I didn’t feel was good for the people of Nebraska?” he said. “I wouldn’t feel very good about that. Maybe it’s a Hobson’s choice, but sometimes we’re called on to make those, and this happens to be bigger than most of them.”

 Liberals like Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who has worked in Congress for 36 years as a former chief of staff to former senator and current Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenTrump stokes new unlikely feud Sanders on 2020 White House bid: 'We're looking at it' Dems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man MORE, said the atmosphere of threats is nothing new, but has increased in proportion to the historic nature of the healthcare vote.

 “It only happens when you’re on the cusp of 60 or the cusp of 50. It isn’t because they feel empowered. It’s because they are empowered,” Kaufman said. “Someone like me doesn’t have any credibility, because I think Congress on its worst day can’t come up with a bill that’s worse than the current system. So I don’t have any leverage to say, ‘I want this, this and this,’ because I think we need it so badly.”

 Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor and Senate analyst at The Cook Political Report, said it is difficult to tell which senator is most likely to follow through on his or her threat.

 “The most consistent is Lieberman,” Duffy said. “The liberals really haven’t been tested lately, because when they’ve made good on threats it was with a Republican president and Republican Senate. I suspect some are indeed serious.

“Here’s the real problem: If they honestly want 60 votes, they’ve got to play ball with everybody. That’s a bigger problem, when you have someone like Lieberman, whose interests are very different than the liberal bloc. It’s hard to tell how you give liberals what they want and get Lieberman’s vote.”

Like Kaufman, Duffy said the prominence of the coming healthcare vote is creating a lot of the voting threats, disagreeing with the premise that it is simply a matter of math.


 “I don’t think there is any member up there that doesn’t appreciate this could be the most important vote of their career,” she said. “I think the numbers complicate the issue; the issue doesn’t complicate the numbers.”

In passing the House bill, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) needed to assess whose threats were real.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) claimed he and about 39 other Democrats would vote no unless they got a vote on his anti-abortion rights amendment. Needing firm yes votes, Pelosi took Stupak’s threat seriously and agreed to allow a vote on the measure, which passed easily.

Earlier this year, 60 liberal-leaning Democrats suggested they would reject a House healthcare bill that did not have a “robust” public option that called for providers to be paid based on Medicare rates.

That version of the public option was discarded. It didn’t cost Pelosi even a handful of votes.

And after cutting a separate deal with centrists this summer, Pelosi scoffed at the notion that liberals would reject the House bill, saying, “Are you asking me, ‘Are progressives going to vote against universal, quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans?’? No way.”

She was right. Every liberal in the House voted for the healthcare reform bill except for Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who was undecided days before the vote.

Since the House passed its bill 219-212 last month, more than 40 abortion-rights supporters have threatened to vote against the final healthcare reform bill if it includes the Stupak language. It remains to be seen if they will follow through on this threat, because the Democrats spearheading the effort voted for the measure that passed the lower chamber.

Other threats that have been lobbed at the final bill, should it clear the Senate, have addressed an excise tax on so-called Cadillac health plans, medical liability reform and the inclusion of a public-option “trigger.”