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O'Rourke faces pressure from left on 'Medicare for all'

O'Rourke faces pressure from left on 'Medicare for all'
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Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke clarifies remarks, leaves door open to gubernatorial bid O'Rourke says he's not planning on run for Texas governor O'Rourke slams Cruz for video of border visit MORE has offered conflicting messages on 'Medicare for all,' drawing fire from progressive activists who accuse him of backing off an idea they say he once supported.

The issue has become an important litmus test for those on the party's left and an early question for O'Rourke, who announced his presidential run on Thursday.

O’Rourke previously supported a full-scale single-payer plan, writing in a 2017 Facebook post, “We need a single-payer health care system for all Americans.”

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But he backed off the idea during his Senate run in Texas last year, calling for “achieving universal health care coverage — whether it be through a single-payer system, a dual system or otherwise.”

This week, O'Rourke again moved away from full single-payer health care, saying he supports giving people the option to buy into Medicare. That's far from the approach being pushed by 2020 rival and progressive icon Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Sunrise Movement endorses Nina Turner in special election for Ohio House seat The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Israel-Hamas carnage worsens; Dems face SALT dilemma MORE (I-Vt.), who would mandate Medicare for everyone and abolish employer-sponsored coverage.

“It’s very disheartening and misleading because he did flirt with Medicare for all during his Senate race,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats and a former Sanders staffer.

“Beto will lose the votes of progressives and young people by not coming out in favor of single-payer Medicare for all,” he added.

O’Rourke told CBS News on Thursday that Medicare for all is “one of the possible paths” to expanding health care coverage but made it clear he prefers a different approach that would allow people to keep their employer-based coverage if they wanted and leave Medicare as an option.

“I think the fastest way to get there is to ensure that people who have insurance that they like through their employer are able to keep it and that we complement that with those who can purchase Medicare, be covered by Medicaid,” O’Rourke said in the interview.

He separately said in Iowa this week that he likes a bill along those lines from Reps. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states Pressure builds for Biden to back vaccine patent waivers MORE (D-Ill.) and Rosa DeLauroRosa DeLauroDemocrats renew push for permanent child credit expansion This week: House to vote on Jan. 6 Capitol attack commission House Democrats unveil .9 billion bill to boost security after insurrection MORE (D-Conn.).

Other presidential candidates, including Sens. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris, Hispanic Caucus meet on Central America Harris headlining Asian American Democratic PAC's summit Here's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not MORE (D-Calif.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Helping students make informed decisions on college Student debt cancellation advocates encouraged by Biden, others remain skeptical MORE (D-Mass.) and Cory BookerCory BookerPolice reform talks hit familiar stumbling block Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants Biden adds pressure to congressional talks with self-imposed deadlines MORE (D-N.J.), are backers of the Sanders plan, in contrast to O’Rourke.

That's certain to keep the issue in the limelight — and pressure on O'Rourke.

Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive group Democracy for America, said O’Rourke was professing “corporatist gobbledygook” on health care.

O'Rourke's struggles with Medicare for all also highlight how the issue has created a rift in the Democratic party. Many progressives say backing single-payer health care is a necessity for the eventual nominee.

But more establishment Democrats think it is a smarter strategy politically to allow people to keep their employer-sponsored coverage if they like it rather than mandating an end to it.

Republicans have already seized on the elimination of private insurance coverage under Medicare for all as a leading line of attack.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in January found that support for Medicare for all drops from 56 percent to 37 percent when people are told the proposal would mean the elimination of private insurance companies.

A proposal along the lines of what O’Rourke is suggesting — to make Medicare an option for all — has the support of 74 percent of the public, the poll found.

O’Rourke also indicated Thursday that he could try to work with Republicans on the issue, a far different tone than that of Sanders, who has called his presidential run a continuation of the "political revolution" he says started in 2016.

“I’m convinced that we will have to work from as much common ground as possible,” O’Rourke told Radio Iowa on Thursday. “No one person and perhaps no one party can force the decision on this. This has to be something that America comes together on.”

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), pushed back on O’Rourke’s openness to working with GOP lawmakers.

 “The larger problem here is his entire theory of the case on being president,” Green said.

Green noted that PCCC supported O’Rourke in the Senate race last year but questioned his more recent remarks.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that if someone wants a Medicare for all champion in the White House ... that Beto is kind of taking himself out of consideration for that champion role, which is rather unfortunate,” Green said.

For many progressives, there are worries that O'Rourke is pushing a centrist message that ignores their priorities.

In his challenge against Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP resistance to campaign finance reforms shows disregard for US voters Bipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden MORE (R-Texas), O'Rourke generated massive enthusiasm among Democrats, but critics also said he offered few policy specifics.

Whether O'Rourke can do that again in what is expected to be a crowded Democratic primary field and with progressives rallying around Medicare for all is an open question.

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said O’Rourke in general has put more of an emphasis on charisma and appeals to unity rather than on detailed policy proposals.

“It seems to me he's running a personality campaign as opposed to a policy campaign,” he said.

But he added that O'Rourke could be an appealing pick for Democrats focused primarily on defeating President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP-led Maricopa County board decries election recount a 'sham' Analysis: Arpaio immigration patrol lawsuit to cost Arizona county at least 2 million Conservatives launch 'anti-cancel culture' advocacy organization MORE in the general election, which he called an "overriding concern" for many.

Jonathan Chait, a prominent center-left writer for New York magazine, made a similar point on Thursday.

“He is saying he has natural gifts as a political communicator, and believes he should put them to use for the purpose of beating Donald Trump and otherwise making the world a better place,” Chait wrote about O'Rourke. “This is a good reason to run for the presidency!”

But progressives insist they won't let O'Rourke off the hook regarding Medicare for all.

 “When Beto O'Rourke is being outworked from the left by Cory Booker, you know that there’s a problem,” Sroka said.

Updated on March 18 at 2:36 p.m.