Centrist Dems wary of public option push

Centrist Dems wary of public option push
© Greg Nash

Centrist Democrats appear reluctant to join their party’s embrace of a public option for ObamaCare.  

The idea of adding a government-run insurance option to compete with private insurers is making a comeback in the Democratic Party, with President Obama endorsing the idea Monday, two days after presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Roger Stone invokes gag order in new fundraiser MORE emphasized a public option as part of an effort to win over Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day The Memo: Bernie Sanders’s WH launch sharpens ‘socialist’ question Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise MORE and his supporters after a contentious primary.

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But among more centrist members of the Senate, where the “public option” was stopped in 2009, there is little enthusiasm for the idea. 

Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (D), who represents conservative-leaning North Dakota, pushed back the hardest.

“I think it's critically important that we stop trying to complicate healthcare and we start taking a look at what needs to be fixed in ObamaCare,” Heitkamp said. “Until we actually have those conversations and we have bipartisan support, I think it's unrealistic to assume that we're going to see any kind of expansion of care.”

Heitkamp proposed tweaks to the health law, along with other centrist Democrats, in 2014, such as streamlining reporting requirements to lighten the load on businesses.  

While a public option has no chance of passing so long as Republicans control the House and Senate, it’s far from certain that the idea could pass a Democratic Congress, given the skepticism or outright opposition among centrists like Heitkamp. 

Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (D-Ind.), another Democrat from a red-leaning state, referred questions to his press office when asked if he supported a public option. His press office did not respond to inquiries.  

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHarris on election security: 'Russia can't hack a piece of paper' Schiff: Evidence of collusion between Trump campaign, Russia 'pretty compelling' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears MORE (D-Va.), who survived a reelection scare in 2014, was noncommittal on the question of a public option, pivoting to a different change he’d like to see in ObamaCare.

He called for addressing the requirement in ObamaCare for providing coverage to people who work more than 30 hours per week. Critics of the law say that requirement has created an incentive for employers be push people into part-time positions.

“As we talk about other options, we also have to address things like [the] 29 to 30 hour cliff,” Warner said. 

That “cliff” is an issue usually raised by Republicans. 

While the public option has been embraced in the liberal-leaning quarters of the party, more centrist Democrats simply said they were unsure and had to study the details. 

“I'd have to see it first to see; it's a big term,” Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William Nelson2020 party politics in Puerto Rico There is no winning without Latinos as part of your coalition Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms MORE (D-Fla.) said when asked about Obama’s public option proposal.  

When asked if he supports a public option in general terms, Nelson said, “I'm not going to answer that, because I don't want to answer generally. I want to answer specifically.” 

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House MORE (D-Del.) offered a similar response. 

“I had not heard that, so let me just take a look at it,” Carper said. “When we passed the Affordable Care Act, unfortunately we had to do it very much on a party line vote, and it's unfortunate, because if it had been a bipartisan bill, it would have been better, I think.” 

“I'm proud of what we did nonetheless,” he added. “Can that early work be improved upon? Sure it can.” 

Asked if he is open to the idea of a public option in general terms, Carper did not answer directly, instead joking, “I'm happy to hear all kinds of good ideas, even the president’s.”

Both Nelson and Carper voted against a more liberal version of the public option in the Senate Finance Committee in 2009 while voting in favor of a version seen as more moderate, put forward by Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats National emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration MORE (D-N.Y.).

Obama, who supported a public option in 2009 before dropping it to win passage of the law, renewed his call in an article published on Monday. He said that while there is strong competition on the ObamaCare marketplaces for most people, in some states there are only one or two insurers. He said a public option could add competition in those areas. 

Clinton has gone farther, in that she does not geographically limit where the public option would be. She has also called for allowing people to buy into Medicare at age 55. 

Clinton’s proposals drew praise from Sanders, the champion of the surging left wing of the party, on Saturday. 

“The goal of health care reform in America is to guarantee health care for all as a right, what every other major country on earth does,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

“Today's proposal by [Clinton] is an important step toward expanding health insurance and health care access to millions of Americans.”