Battle over public option fuels war of words

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A war of words — and dueling petitions — erupted this week between the Democratic primary candidates for Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat over whether the Senate should try to add a government-sponsored insurance option to a measure intended to fix the massive health care bill already signed into law. Both U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and the challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, ramped up the rhetoric as the week progressed, accusing each other of undermining efforts to reform the nation’s health care system.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff called on U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to revive the public insurance option.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Starting last week, when it became apparent Congress might actually pass the $940 billion Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Romanoff called on Bennet to introduce the “public option” as an amendment to the reconciliation bill sent over by the House after it passed the Senate’s version of health care legislation Sunday night.

The public option, a version of which the House passed in December, didn’t make it into the final Senate bill approved on Christmas Eve because some Democrats opposed it, but, supporters argue, its chances of passing improve if it’s included in a reconciliation bill, which can’t be filibustered and only needs a majority voting in favor.

But as the vote neared, even Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Socialist and one of the strongest backers in the Senate for a public option, backed down from an earlier promise to force a vote during reconciliation, citing his desire to get the health care bill passed without delay or risk of derailment.

Before the House voted — clinching a hard-fought 220-215 win passing the legislation — congressional and Obama administration negotiators agreed on a set of compromises between the two chambers’ health care bills, with Senate leadership promising to deliver the votes for a reconciliation package that would originate in the House.

Under Senate rules, a simple majority can adopt reconciliation bills — which can include certain legislative fixes designed to reduce the deficit — bypassing the need for the 60-vote super-majority Democrats gave up when Republican Scott Brown won election in January to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat.

Calling himself a “strong proponent of a public option” and noting he had “taken a lot of heat for it,” Bennet declared during Senate debate Wednesday that the public option wasn’t dead, it was just resting.

“A lot of us did all we could to convince the House to include it in this bill and we were disappointed when they didn’t,” Bennet said. “And we’re going to continue to fight for it until we get a vote. We will have our vote on a public option. But I will not risk the well being of Coloradans to do it, and I will not play into the hands of those who want to kill the bill.”

Not good enough, Romanoff charged.

“Last month, several members of the Senate — a majority by some reports — asked the Senate to restore the public option by taking an up-or-down vote in this process,” Romanoff told The Colorado Statesman in an interview Tuesday, referring to an effort led by Bennet before this week’s votes.

“They have a chance to do that this week but they seem to have had a change of heart,” he continued. “They say we can’t do that because taking a vote on the public option will kill the bill. That defies logic. The bill is law. I actually don’t understand this argument at all, and I think there must be some other reason for their decision to prevent an up-or-down vote and go back on what they offered in a letter last month.”

Romanoff wouldn’t say whether he would vote for a reconciliation bill that lacked the public option, calling that a false choice.

“I’m still arguing the Senate should restore the public option,” he said, “I’m not going to surrender. I think a mistake a lot of senators have made is indulging in every hypothetical. They say we’re for the public option but we’ll vote for it if it isn’t included.”

Romanoff’s demands were bolstered by local radio host and columnist David Sirota and a nationally prominent liberal blogger, firedoglake.com founder Jane Hamsher, who started a petition on her Web site urging the Senate to vote on the public action. Since initiating the petition drive aimed at pressuring Bennet, Hamsher and her blog have heaped scorn on the Democrat, calling him a liar, a fool and a hypocrite.

On Wednesday, Sirota, who has made no secret of his distaste for either the Senate or the House version of the health care bill, delivered a stack of petitions to Bennet’s Denver office, claiming more than 35,000 signatures, including roughly 1,800 from Colorado residents.

But Sirota and several dozen like-minded activists crossed paths with other activists delivering an opposing petition, this one an open letter to both the state’s Democratic senators from Colorado labor and progressive groups, urging lawmakers to stand fast against amending the reconciliation bill.

“We ask you to support this bill, without amendment,” reads the letter, organized by ProgressNow Colorado and the Colorado branch of the Service Employees International Union. “A no on amendment is a yes on health care.”

Hours earlier, groups organized by the Health Care for America Now advocacy group released a similar letter addressed to the entire Senate signed by180 unions, health care reform and progressive organizations.

“With one voice these groups are saying this reconciliation bill improves the health insurance law,” said the advocacy group’s national campaign manager, Richard Kirsch, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “We are united in sending one simple message: we’re asking every senator to vote for this bill without amendments — any amendments.”

Kirsch underlined what he said was the importance of leaving the reconciliation bill unscathed.

“There is a time for debate and a time to act,” he said.

There are still more signatures on petitions out there, including a couple thousand on a petition the Romanoff campaign generated through its Web site.

“We’ve got over 2,000 signatures on our petition, but the window is still open,” Romanoff campaign spokesman Dean Toda said Wednesday afternoon. “We plan to close it and deliver our petition to Bennet’s people this week.”

Bennet is the recipient of all this attention because of a petition he initiated that appeared, for a while, to revive hopes for a public option included in the sweeping health care bill just passed by Congress.

Last month, Bennet gained acclaim in progressive circles when he circulated a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to allow the Senate to vote on a public option if it got the chance under reconciliation rules.

“The Senate has an obligation to reform our unworkable health insurance market — both to reduce costs and to give consumers more choices,” Bennet’s letter concluded. “A strong public option is the best way to deliver on both of these goals, and we urge its consideration under reconciliation rules.”

At least 23 other Democratic senators signed Bennet’s letter — less than half the number needed to pass a public option in the Senate — but progressive groups tracking the effort tallied as many as 51 Democrats who might support a public option, based on press statements and earlier expressions in its favor.

Even with that potential backing in the Senate, Democrats closed ranks and vowed to pass the House reconciliation bill untouched, leery of upsetting a particularly precarious apple cart.

One prominent Democratic supporter of the public option, Sen. Tom Harkin — who chairs the Health Education Labor and Pension committee, where Bennet sits, and was responsible for drafting significant portions of the health care bill — said Wednesday he was standing firm against the move. The Iowa Democrat railed against Republican attempts to thwart the bill with frivolous amendments but also blasted political friends who might want to slip in some changes during the delicate process.

“While some attempts to amend this bill may be well intentioned,” Harkin told reporters on a conference call, “they put the entire reconciliation process at risk.”

He left no doubt what attempts he meant.

“If a public option is offered as an amendment today,” Harkin went on, “I would vote against it, because the greater good is getting the bill passed.”

Don’t cry for the public option, Harkin hastened to add, suggesting the Senate could take it up under a future reconciliation bill later this year when it would still only require a simple majority to enact. Reid has also said the Senate will vote later this year on the public option, among other attempts to fine-tune health care reform.

“Once we get over that hurdle (passing the current reconciliation bill), we will pick up proposals to enact a public option,” Harkin said. “I can assure you that I, along with others in the Senate and the House, will begin work on that immediately.”

Romanoff brushed back pledges to take up the public option in the future as empty.

“Some folks have said you can live to fight another day on the public option,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “One, that’s not what they promised. They got a great deal of attention and money by running around the last month promising to bring back the public option in exactly this process. And, two, this process actually gives them a better chance to restore the public option than some unspecified pledge to bring it up at another date, at which point you’ll need 60 votes to do it.”

For its part, the Bennet campaign raised the temperature further Wednesday evening in a blistering attack that accused Romanoff of aligning with Republicans to “kill the bill,” a slogan shouted over the weekend by conservative opponents of health care reform.

“As final, critical health care reforms are considered in the Senate, Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — who has consistently refused to support Democratic health care reform efforts — continues stand with Republicans in Washington in opposition to real health care reforms,” reads a release issued by Bennet.

“By embracing the Republican ‘kill the bill’ strategy,” Bennet campaign spokesman Trevor Kincaid said, “Romanoff is running away from commonsense voters and practicing the type of cheap politics that so many in Colorado are sick and tired of.”

Building on a campaign theme that says the Senate is broken— the same theme Bennet has used in recent months — Romanoff laid blame on Democratic lawmakers who lack courage, courage he said he’d bring to bear if he’s elected.

“I don’t think this is a matter of ideology, I think it’s a matter of integrity,” Romanoff said. “The majority of the Senate, including Sen. Sanders, said this is what they want the leadership to do. It seems to me the question is, are you willing to stand up to the leadership of your party or not? And the answer, from 59 Democratic senators, seems to be not.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com