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First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides

First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides
© Greg Nash

Supporters of “Medicare for All” notched a victory Wednesday when one of Congress’s most powerful committees debated the progressive proposal, but the venue also gave Republicans an opportunity to paint proponents as socialists.

Democrats and Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee were at odds with each other, and at times with the lively audience of Medicare for All advocates, over how to pay for a program that’s estimated to cost in the tens of trillions of dollars.

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It was the first time a congressional committee with jurisdiction over health care issues has held a hearing on the proposal, following two events hosted by the Rules and the Budget committees earlier this year.

“This is a historic step in the process of recognizing health care as a human right,” said Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first MORE (D-Minn.), co-chair of the House’s Medicare for All Caucus, at a press conference.

The hearing was mostly partisan and light on substance, with members using their allotted time to rail for or against the proposal instead of questioning the panel of health care experts and advocates at the witness table.

While Democrats are divided over the issue, they focused their collective fire on Republicans, accusing them of using “scare tactics” to fight back against any government expansion of health care.

“Today’s Republican condemnation of Medicare for All continues a great Republican tradition of opposing Medicare for anyone,” said Rep. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettAn attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation Capitol Police say reports of officer's death are wrong Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act MORE (D-Texas), prompting both applause and laughter from the audience.

GOP lawmakers zeroed in on Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history Rep. Adriano Espaillat tests positive for COVID-19 Overnight Health Care: Trump admin makes changes to speed vaccinations | CDC to order negative tests for international travelers | More lawmakers test positive after Capitol siege MORE’s (D-Wash.) Medicare for All bill, which has 112 co-sponsors in the House.

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Republicans compared her measure to failed universal health care systems in countries like Romania, warning that single-payer would hurt children and seniors.

“We will not stand by and let Democrats seize your health care, your choice, and your control over life-and-death health decisions under Medicare for All,” said Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyGrowing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege Overnight Health Care: US sets record for daily COVID-19 deaths with over 3,800 | Hospitals say vaccinations should be moving faster | Brazilian health officials say Chinese COVID vaccine 78 percent effective The Hill's Morning Report - A dark day as Trump embraces 'special' rioters MORE (R-Texas), the ranking member on the committee.

"When you pull the curtain back on Medicare for All, the truth is staring at you: Many Americans will pay more, wait longer for health care, and get worse care than you receive now,” he added.

Jayapal, who sat in the front row of the audience with a sour look on her face during Brady’s testimony, at one point commented, “Wow.”

“I have never heard a ranking member’s statement that was filled with not a single truth,” she later told reporters.

Wednesday’s event also highlighted the fact that the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has the most control over health care issues, has not held a hearing on Medicare for All.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneHouse Democrats urge Amazon to investigate, recall 'defective' products Asbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight Pharma execs say FDA will not lower standards for coronavirus vaccine MORE (D-N.J.) has instead focused his committee’s work on strengthening the Affordable Care Act and lowering health care and prescription drug costs.

Jayapal told The Hill she will start conversations with Pallone “soon” about holding a hearing.

The hearing was more lively than the previous two Medicare for All hearings, with Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealTrump's lawyers seek clarity about how tax-return case will proceed following Biden inauguration IRS says start of tax filing season delayed until Feb. 12 On The Money: Twenty states raise minimum wage at start of new year | Trade group condemns GOP push to overturn Biden victory | Top Democrat: Georgia runoffs will influence push for ,000 checks MORE (D-Mass.) admonishing the applauding and hollering audience several times.

At one point, a protester stood up to point and shout at Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results Here are the Republicans planning to challenge the Electoral College results On The Money: Congress passes bill to avert shutdown as coronavirus talks drag into weekend | Federal Reserve fight imperils relief talks MORE (R-Pa.) for referring to Medicare for All proposals as an expansion of red tape and bureaucracy.

“You’re beholden to corporate interests!” the protester shouted. “You only care about money!”

As the protester was led out of the room, Kelly said the health care debate “brings out the best and worst in people.”

Medicare for All proponents aren’t just pressuring Republicans, they’re also calling on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer placed on administrative leave: reports Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN MORE (D-Calif.) to allow a floor vote on the measure.

Supporters argue that Democratic leaders should be taking the proposal seriously given the number of backers in the 2020 field of presidential contenders.

Several Democrats running for president have backed the Senate version of Medicare for All sponsored by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Sanders's inauguration look promptly gets a bobblehead Booker brings girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, to inauguration MORE (I-Vt.), a White House hopeful.

But not all Democratic candidates back the proposal, and that intraparty division was evident at Wednesday’s hearing as well.

While the Ways and Means Committee includes many Democratic co-sponsors of Jayapal’s bill, including Reps. John LewisJohn LewisHarris now 'the most influential woman' in American politics Georgia Democrat introduces bill to bar Trump from Capitol after term ends Urgency mounts for new voting rights bill MORE (Ga.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerInauguration parties lose the glitz and glamour in 2021 Four things Democrats should do in Biden's first 100 days House Republican wants restrictions on masks with messages MORE (Ore.) and Linda Sánchez (Calif.), others like Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellCapitol Police officer hailed as hero for drawing rioters away from Senate chamber John Lewis remembered after Warnock victory: 'Wish he were here tonight' Cori Bush shares picture of expanded 'Squad' MORE (D-N.J.) would rather focus on adding a public insurance option via the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to compete with private insurance companies.

“The ACA subsidies could have been greater and we should have included a public option,” Pascrell said during the hearing. “Those two priorities, for me, must be on our agenda.”