Franken Faces Friendly Fire From Liberals Who Want Public Option

Posted August 26, 2009 at 5:00pm

ST. PAUL, Minn. — For Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), there wasn’t an unfriendly face at the table. While his colleagues have been facing a barrage of constituent complaints at town hall meetings this recess, Franken may have had the decks stacked in his favor Wednesday as he held court before a dozen pro-health-care-reform stakeholders in a conference room at the headquarters of the local Service Employees International Union. But just because their “Minnesota nice— was in full effect, doesn’t mean the union activists, religious leaders and health care providers let Franken off the hook. First individually, and then in unison, they pleaded with Franken to maintain the public option as part of the health care overhaul. “Go to the mat for the public option,— said Jennifer Munt, a top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Minnesota Council 5. “We aren’t going to get a second bite on this.—TakeAction Minnesota’s Dan McGrath echoed Munt’s sentiments.“Keep the insurance industry honest,— said McGrath, executive director of the liberal group, which works for social and economic justice. “Any bill going forward needs a strong public option.—Franken has long been a strong advocate for creating a public option that would be an alternative to the private health insurance providers, but in recent weeks Republicans have fired back against the plan. Franken heeded the rallying cry of the people he was meeting with and insisted he would push for the public option in the Senate.“I’m strongly in favor of a public option,— Franken said. “Since it doesn’t require a profit, that gives it an advantage and if it delivers better health care, people will go to it. … Private health care will actually have to compete in the market, and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.—Still, he acknowledged the difficulty of the public option remaining part of any health care reform package that Congress passes. “It depends on how we approach it,— Franken said. “With reconciliation, it’s more possible, but I don’t know if reconciliation is a way we can go.—Franken also noted the importance of keeping moderate Democratic Senators in conservative states like Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) on board with the final legislation. “Those Democrats sometimes don’t vote with the rest of us,— Franken said. “We need Ben Nelson.—Franken declined to discuss whether he would consider voting for a health care bill that did not include a public option.“I’m not going to negotiate against myself,— he said.The meeting, which brought together leaders from the religious community, unions, the AARP and the health care world, was one of several Franken is holding across the state this month. While the participants in the roundtable found a sympathetic ear from Franken, who just joined the Senate after a months-long recount following the 2008 election, several still pushed the Senator to do more.“It’s somewhat discouraging to see this conversation flounder in this country,— said Grant Stevenson, pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in St. Paul.Stevenson, who is also head of the ISAIAH’s Clergy and Religious Leaders Caucus, a faith-based social justice network, helped organize a group of 50 people who traveled recently to Washington, D.C., to speak with their Representatives about health care. “I myself was disheartened by the lack of passion around this conversation as we talked to folks in Congressional offices,— Stevenson said.Stevenson noted that Franken paid tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) at the start of the roundtable.“You began talking today about Sen. Kennedy,— he said, “and I tell you, I wonder who will roar in the Senate for not just something that’s passable but something that’s good.—