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 ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE emphasized a public option as part of an effort to win over Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Manchin fires warning shot on plan to expand Medicare Democrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor 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 HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill 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 DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda 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 WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package 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 NelsonEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Climate change turning US into coffee country Elon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? 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 CarperOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs EPA finalizes rule cutting use of potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - US speeds evacuations as thousands of Americans remain in Afghanistan 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 SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill 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.”