Democrats push ahead on health care

Sen. Harry Reid tries to keep track of all the efforts to draft a Democratic health care plan

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is being pulled in several directions as a Democratic health care plan is being drafted.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is being pulled in several directions as a Democratic health care plan is being drafted.

Photo By dennis myers

The Republican National Committee television spot running in Nevada can be viewed here Reid’s June speech can be read here

Nevada and its senior U.S. senator began getting more attention as crunch time on health care drew closer in Congress.

The Republican National Committee started running a television spot entitled “Grand Experiment” in Arkansas, Nevada and North Dakota. The spot is critical of many Obama initiatives and includes this narrative: “Barack Obama’s massive spending experiment hasn’t healed our economy. His new experiment risks their future and our health.”

Meanwhile, a group called Health Care for America Now, which is supportive of Democratic health care plans, has bought time for its own TV spots in Connecticut and Nevada. They seem to be designed to buck up Sens. Harry Reid and Chris Dodd.

The House Committee on Health and Labor on July 17 voted out its version of the plan by a vote of 26 to 22, one of five committee approvals it needs. A surprise was the vote of Democrat Dina Titus of Nevada against the measure. (The Wall Street Journal this week featured the Titus vote in a front page story on Democrats tailoring their votes to the rich people in their districts. That was in column 6. Columns 3, 4 and 5 were filled with a story on the collapse of the Las Vegas economy.)

“There are positive aspects of this legislation like ending the practice of denial based on preexisting condition and making insurance portable … but I have concerns regarding the tax portion of this legislation,” Titus told Congressional Quarterly.

Reid tried to keep the process of writing a health care bill moving even as some senators asked him to slow it down. Reid, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Obama want to have bills passed by each house and ready for the reconciliation process before a planned August recess. But six senators wrote to him to ask that the pace of the process be slowed. The letter was signed by Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

“We believe that taking additional time to achieve a bipartisan result is critical,” they wrote.

The issue became more politically charged this week when Republican National Chair Michael Steele started talking darkly of a “cabal” to change the health care system. In an appearance at the National Press Club, Steele used a whopping 4,524 words to denounce Democratic health care plans.

“President Obama is conducting an experiment,” Steel said. “He’s conducting a dangerous experiment with our health care. He’s conducting a reckless experiment with our economy. And he’s conducting an unnecessary experiment with our tax dollars—experiments that will transform the very way of life of our country and its citizens. The president is rushing this experiment through Congress so fast, so soon, that we haven’t had a moment to think if it would work—or worse, to think about the consequences to our nation, our economy and our families’ economic future if it doesn’t.

“Under the Obama plan, the vast majority of Americans will pay more to get less. It’s that simple. … Many Democrats outside of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid-Waxman cabal know that voters won’t stand for these kinds of foolish prescriptions for our health care. We do, too.”

A couple of hours later, Obama himself responded with an appearance at a Washington, D.C., health center.

“Now, we’ve talked this problem to death, year after year. But unless we act—and act now—none of this will change. Just a quick statistic I heard about this hospital: Just a few years ago, there were approximately 50,000 people coming into the emergency room. Now they’ve got 85,000. There’s been almost a doubling of emergency room care in a relatively short span of time, which is putting enormous strains on the system as a whole. That’s the status quo …

“If we do nothing, then families will spend more and more of their income for less and less care. The number of people who lose their insurance because they’ve lost or changed jobs will continue to grow. More children will be denied coverage on account of asthma or a heart condition. Jobs will be lost, take-home pay will be lower, businesses will shutter, and we will continue to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on insurance company boondoggles and inefficiencies that add to our financial burdens without making us any healthier.”

Obama quoted a senator he did not name—later identified as Republican Jim DeMint of South Carolina—as saying, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

“Think about that,” Obama told his audience. “This isn’t about me. … This is about a health care system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses, and breaking America’s economy.”

One of the problems for Reid in controlling the process is that the “Obama plan” referenced by Steele doesn’t exist, though some journalists keep referring to one. (Newsweek’s Holly Bailey: “Twice last week, President Obama ripped ‘naysayers’ of his health care reform plan.”)

Unlike President Clinton, Obama has not proposed his own plan. He is leaving the drafting of it to Congress. At least six committees in Congress are drafting legislation. The Senate’s Committee on Health passed one last week. Two House committees began work this week on other versions. So the notion of “Obama’s plan” is difficult because the Democrats have not yet agreed on one.

That didn’t stop Republicans from attacking it, though. In one early case, GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio denounced the Democrats’ unreleased “forthcoming plan.” So with these moving targets, Reid is hard pressed to control the shape and look of the Democratic proposal.

Last month, Reid spoke on the Senate floor about his view of what the plan should be:

“Democrats are committed to ensuring all Americans can choose their doctors, hospitals and health plans,” he said. “No matter what Republicans claim, the government has no intention of choosing for you any of these things—or meddling in any of these relationships. If you like the coverage you have, you can choose to keep it. Like most Americans, we believe there should be more choice and more competition to lift the heavy weight of crushing health care costs. If we leave it up to private insurance companies more interested in keeping their profits up than keeping us healthy, that won’t happen. One of the best ways to do that is to give people the choice of a public option not run by insurance companies.”

Whether his template will be followed by his colleagues, however, is yet to be settled. Reid has intervened at least once in the bill drafting. On July 7, Roll Call—a Capitol Hill newspaper—reported that Reid told the Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus of Montana that party leaders had concerns that satisfying GOP demands was costing them more than it was gaining. The newspaper reported that Reid “ordered Finance Chairman Max Baucus … to drop a proposal to tax health benefits and stop chasing Republican votes on a massive health care reform bill.”

“According to Democratic sources, Reid told Baucus that taxing health benefits and failing to include a strong government-run insurance option of some sort in his bill would cost 10 to 15 Democratic votes; Reid told Baucus it wasn’t worth securing the support of Grassley and at best a few additional Republicans,” Roll Call reported. Other media entities reported similar developments.

Until that point, Baucus had been nearing agreement on legislation that taxed employer-provided benefits and set up a nonprofit insurance cooperative but not a publicly owned plan.