Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Public Option: The reconciliation process going on in the Senate means it would only take 50 votes. The time to fix it (the bill) later is NOW.

By Michael Whitney

"For all the people who said “pass the bill and fix it later,” the “later” is now. The big health care bill has become law, and now reform supporters have a vehicle with which to fix health care reform that can’t be filibustered. A chance Democrats are unlikely to get again for years. This is probably the best opportunity Democrats have to get some important improvements through Senate, yet the silence from many in the “fix it later” crowd is deafening."

With the Senate vote-arama commencing this afternoon on the health reform fixes in the reconciliation bill, the AFL-CIO is telling Senators to vote no on any and all amendments. That includes the public option, if it’s introduced.

But leaders have decided, for better or worse, on a “don’t rock the boat” strategy. They want the final vote on the reconciliation bill in the Senate to be the last vote in this grueling health care process. Period.

To help keep members in line, the AFL-CIO is telling members they will not be penalized for voting against progressive amendments. They’re sending the following message: “a NO on amendments is a YES on health care.”

The biggest part of the reconciliation bill is the fix on the excise tax on middle class health care plans, negotiated between the White House and the labor movement in January and passed by the House Sunday night. It revises the tax to hit a broader range of union and nonunion workers with expensive health care plans, and delays the start of the tax until 2018.

The deal was key to flipping the AFL-CIO from its insistence on the inclusion of a public option to outright support and advocacy for the bill with the excise tax fix.

Back in September, Trumka drew a clear line in the sand for the health care bill:

Richard Trumka, who will replace Sweeney as president in a couple of weeks, said there are “three absolute musts” for health care: the public option, an employer mandate, and no taxes on employer-provided health care.

“That means we won’t support the bill if it doesn’t have the public option in it,” Trumka said.

Of course, Trumka got none of the “three absolute musts” for the health care bill except for staving off the excise tax for eight years. So it makes sense for the AFL-CIO to want to protect the deal at all costs, even if it means whipping against amendments it would otherwise support.

The AFL-CIO’s initial publicity around its no votes on amendments push framed any amendment as “a ploy to defeat the bill.” But that counted out the real possibility of Democratic Senators introducing amendments of their own – such as Colorado Senator Michael Bennet introducing a public option amendment. I asked about that possibility to Josh Goldstein, spokesperson at the AFL-CIO.

“There’s the possibility we’re going to have to say no to a lot of issues that normally are major priorities.” said Goldstein. ”We’re for the public option – always have been and will continue to push for that. But to finish this critical first step in health care reform for all Americans, the Senate must pass the reconciliation bill passed by the House.”

Unfortunately, any move to “continue to push” for the public option will face a steeper slope than the one it faces now. While the public option would normally have to pass with 60 votes to avoid a filibuster, the reconciliation process going on in the Senate means it would only take 50 votes. The time to fix it later is now.