I'm no negotiating expert, but I know that if you're not willing to walk away from a bad deal, no one will take your demands seriously.
Americans overwhelmingly want a public health insurance option and need that option for any number of reasons. Who you are and where you live strongly affects the kind of health insurance and health care you receive. Most Americans live in communities where one or two private companies dominate the health insurance market. Rural residents often have very limited access to health care providers. People of color also are shortchanged by our current system.
Despite all these problems, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has done his best in recent weeks to show that The Onion was right about him eight years ago. Baucus has continued to pursue a bipartisan agreement on health care containing a fake public option.
Ezra Klein underscored how ridiculous Baucus' approach is given the current balance of power in the Senate:
This is who is in the room helping Baucus put together his bill. Olympia Snowe, Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, Jeff Bingaman and Kent Conrad. In a Senate of 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans, the health-care reform bill is being written by three centrist Democrats, one centrist Republicans, and two conservative Republicans. And until last week, Orrin Hatch was in the room, too.
This is not the Finance Committee's bill. This is the Max Baucus Committee's Bill. And there's not a liberal -- or even a Democrat traditionally associated with health-care policy -- working on it. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of Finance's health subcommittee, is not included in the negotiations. Nor is Ron Wyden, who has written the Healthy Americans Act. Chuck Schumer isn't in the room, nor is John Kerry, Debbie Stabenow or Maria Cantwell.
I've been hoping President Barack Obama would put an end to the dangerous Baucus/Grassley dealmaking by threatening to veto any health care bill that did not meet certain conditions. Instead, the White House continues to signal that regional co-operatives or some other fake public option might be acceptable. In other words, Obama is desperate to sign something, anything, this year so that he can declare victory on health care reform.
In this context, it's not surprising that Baucus' bill has dropped the public option, and House "Blue Dogs" have succeeded in weakening what was already a weak public option in the House draft bill. We are now looking at a Massachusetts-style system, with a mandate for individuals to purchase health insurance and no public option to compete with the overpriced private products. That won't solve our problems and would be a political disaster for Democrats.
Fortunately, House Progressives may be willing to reject this bad deal and start the process over next year. Key features of the House bill wouldn't have gone into effect until 2013 anyway. It's worth waiting a year for a better bill. Obama knows this is make or break for his presidency, and he will start twisting Blue Dog arms if he knows the Progressive Caucus is serious about not getting rolled.
Senate Democrats should vote down the Baucus-Grassley compromise in the Finance Committee or on the Senate floor. Then they should implement a new rule suggested by Senator Harkin:
"Every two years the caucus could have a secret ballot on whether a chairman should continue, yes or no," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "If the ‘no’s win, [the chairman’s] out.
"I’ve heard it talked about before," he added. [...]
Some senators suggest privately that Baucus might be more open to persuasion if his chairmanship is subject to regular votes.
Another senior Democratic senator endorsed Harkin’s suggestion but declined to speak on the record for fear of angering Baucus.
"Put me down as a yes, but if you use my name I’ll send a SWAT team after you," said the lawmaker when asked about a biennial referendum on chairmen.
Baucus has been bought and paid for by industries that want to block real reform, and his fellow Senate Democrats are the only people who can strip him of the power to block real reform. If they reject his bill and take away his gavel, there's a chance of passing a strong bill next year through the reconciliation process. This approach carries some political risks and will force Obama to be more engaged in the Congressional negotiations than he has so far. But that is better than letting Baucus ruin our best chance for health care reform in a generation.
A real public health insurance option is still worth fighting for, next year if necessary. It's more important to get this right than to get something on the president's desk by October.
P.S. Why is the Populist Caucus led by Congressman Bruce Braley (IA-01) still AWOL in the debate over what kind of public option makes it into this bill? Braley promised that health care reform would be a top priority of the Populist Caucus.