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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 OmarThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Pelosi signals no further action against Omar 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 DoggettBattle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent 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 MORE (D-Texas), prompting both applause and laughter from the audience.

GOP lawmakers zeroed in on Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalNew Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing Hillicon Valley: House targets tech giants with antitrust bills | Oversight chair presses JBS over payment to hackers | Trump spokesman to join tech company | YouTube suspends GOP senator Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over 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 BradyRepublicans open new line of attack on IRS To address labor shortages, Congress should try a return-to-work bonus Ireland, loved by Biden, is obstacle to tax deal 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 PalloneIntercept bureau chief: Democrats dropping support of Medicare for All could threaten bill's momentum House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 House Democrats criticize Texas's 'shortcomings in preparations' on winter storms 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 NealRepublicans open new line of attack on IRS Ireland, loved by Biden, is obstacle to tax deal Bottom line 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 KellyLiz Cheney says McConnell, McCarthy are heads of GOP Female Republicans 'horrified' by male GOP lawmaker's description of Cheney: report GOP lawmakers raise concerns about child tax credit expansion 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 PelosiPelosi: 'No intention' of abandoning Democrats' infrastructure goals Senate investigation of insurrection falls short Ocasio-Cortez: 'Old way of politics' influences Manchin's thinking 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 SandersThe Memo: Democratic tensions will only get worse as left loses patience McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats Socially-distanced 'action figure' photo of G7 leaders goes viral 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 LewisWhat the Democrats should be doing to reach true bipartisanship Democrats mull overhaul of sweeping election bill Garland vows fight against voting limits that violate law MORE (Ga.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerBipartisan bill proposes to add billion in restaurant relief funds White House pressed on evacuating Afghan allies as time runs out Rivers, hydropower and climate resilience MORE (Ore.) and Linda Sánchez (Calif.), others like Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellNew report reignites push for wealth tax House Democrats to Schumer: Vote again on Jan. 6 probe US files first trade complaint against Mexico over tampered union vote at GM plant 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.”