Healthcare reform advocates have been watching the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee and wondering why no public option component has been forthcoming — despite assurances that it would appear by Tuesday.
According to a source with direct knowledge of what is happening on the HELP Committee, the problem is that two Democrats — Kay Hagan and Jeff Bingaman — are refusing to sign on.
"We can’t bring it up because we’d actually lose the vote," said the source. "They’d vote with the Republicans."
Bingaman and Hagan are in favor of watering down a public plan into Kent Conrad’s co-op plan, which is supported by insurance lobbyists. "It gives them the appearance of supporting a public option without getting them in trouble with the insurance companies," said the source.
But the source also indicated that if the committee did that, they’d lose Bernie Sanders’ vote. There are 12 Democrats (including Sanders) and 10 Republicans on the HELP Committee. But with Kennedy out, Sanders’ vote is needed for anything to pass.
While Obama has expressed support for a public plan, the source said that "so far there has been no whipping done by the White House of the HELP Committee" to adopt one.
This is especially ironic given the full-court press orchestrated by the White House to pass the $108 billion IMF package. Everyone from Rahm Emanuel to Hillary Clinton, Jim Jones, Larry Summers and Obama himself personally pressured House members to pass the bill yesterday, eventually persuading 21 members to reverse votes they had taken on the supplemental bill only a month ago.
"Not even at Rahm’s level has anyone specifically called members of the HELP committee and said ‘we want this public option,’ said the source. "No one from the White House has called and put pressure on any of them."
I asked Roger Hickey, head of Campaign for America’s Future and a member of the HCAN steering committee, what he would like to see Hagan and Bingaman do.
"We would hope that all the Senators on the HELP Committee would support a robust public insurance option that is nationwide in scope," he said. "Not a lot of little coops but one national plan that can cover all Americans who either don’t have access to private insurance or want an alternative to private insurance. Without that, the HELP Committee will simply be subsidizing the private insurance industry without competition acting as a check on their subsidized power."
Public plan advocates want a public insurance option written as part of a core healthcare bill, and not as an amendment. "I think it was Senator Kennedy’s intention to put out a bill that would stand on its own without major amendments, so we think it’s important that the public insurance plan be part of the bill that is passed, so that Senators will not have to amend it on the Senate floor," said Hickey.
"What we’re trying to avoid is a fight on the Senate floor when it’s completely within the power of the HELP Committee to pass a bill that contains a public plan as a core part of the bill rather than as an add-on."
Phone calls to Jude McCartin, Press Secretary to Senator Bingaman, and Dave Hoffman, Press Secretary to Senator Hagan, had not been returned at post time.
You can reach out to Bingaman (202-224-5521) and Hagan (202-224-6342)–please let us know what you hear.