Members Continue to Spar Over Health Care Reform

Posted September 13, 2009 at 12:33pm

President Barack Obama appears to have succeeded last week in reminding Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill that health care reform is a good idea and its time has come.

But as Members of Congress made clear Sunday on the television talk shows, the effort to overhaul the nation’s $2.3 trillion health care system remains mired in the same political and policy disagreements — and that includes the intraparty divide among Democrats.

On ABC’s “This Week,— Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) both said they support lowering health care costs and extending coverage to the uninsured. But Rockefeller, the liberal chairman of the Finance Subcommittee on Health Care, politely disagreed with Landrieu, the moderate chairwoman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, over whether to implement a public insurance option as a part of reform.

“Well, many of us believe … that it will undermine the private insurance system,— Landrieu said. “I can support potentially a fallback but only if the private sector is allowed and given a great opportunity to get this right.—

“I think that’s too easy an answer,— Rockefeller said, cutting in. “I’m not dispassionate on the public option. … I’m going to keep fighting.—

“If there were a good alternative, I would certainly have to look at it,— Rockefeller continued. “I haven’t found one.—

Obama addressed a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, and he received high praise from moderate and liberal Democrats for reframing the health care reform effort and refocusing wayward Democrats on the goal of enacting legislation this year. A Gallup poll of all adults taken Sept. 9, the day of the president’s speech, through Friday, showed his job approval at 52 percent, with 41 percent disapproving.

Just as before the president’s prime time address, the fight over the public insurance option continued to take center stage in the debate. Additionally, an old wrinkle has been elevated to a more prominent status — the cost of the president’s plan and how he intends to pay it.

“He outlined a $900 billion proposal that really doesn’t make sense how you pay for it,— Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued on “Fox News Sunday.—

“I think Democrats are pretty much unified in the Senate around a plan that brings down cost because that’s the central goal here. I thought the president made a very powerful case that the course we are on now is utterly unsustainable,— countered Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who has been participating in the group of six Finance Committee talks in an effort to negotiate a bipartisan health care reform bill.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) refused on NBC’s “Meet the Press— to dismiss the public insurance option as dead — even thought most moderate Democrats in the Senate are opposed. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman (Texas) suggested on the same program that bipartisanship would be impossible unless Obama and Democratic leaders dropped the proposal once and for all.

Cornyn, charged with electing Republicans to the Senate next year, said there’s an “ideological fixation on the public option— among Members of Congress. He said the truth is it simply isn’t workable and lawmakers need to pursue other vehicles for reform.

Durbin’s refusal to rule out a public insurance option in the final health care reform bill echoed comments by chief White House political adviser David Axelrod on CBS’s “Face the Nation.“

Obama, Axelrod said, “continues to believe it’s a good idea, he continues to advocate it, and I’m not willing to accept that it’s not going to be in the final package.—

Obama administration officials appearing on the Sunday talk-show circuit reiterated that the president will refuse to sign any health care reform bill that adds to the federal deficit. Officials also repeated the president’s pledge not to sign a bill that would fund abortions or provide access to health care benefits for illegal immigrants.

Axelrod’s comments on the public option didn’t make moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) very happy.

Snowe, who has been participating with Conrad in the gang of six Finance Committee talks, said Obama’s continued push for the public insurance option decreases the prospects of the Congress achieving a consensus on health care reform.

And, Snowe said the Congress’ ability to approve a bipartisan health care bill could directly influence the public’s perception of the legislation. The White House and Democratic leaders have been heavily courting Snowe as they attempt to cobble together 60 votes for a health care bill.

“I urged the president to take the public option off the table because it’s universally opposed by all Republicans in the Senate, and therefore there’s no way to pass a plan that includes the public option. So, I think it’s recognizing that because it is a roadblock to building the kind of consensus that we need to move forward,— Snowe said, also on “Face the Nation.— “I think it’s unfortunate because it leaves open a legislative possibility that creates uncertainty in this process.—

“I think you could get real momentum to building a consensus on other issues,— she continued. “I appreciate the fact that the president on the question in his speech on Wednesday night. But it does leave it open, and therefore unpredictable.—

Asked if she would be willing to be the lone Republican Senator to vote for a Democratic bill, Snowe left open the possibility if she believes it is good policy. But the Maine Republican signaled she would prefer to vote for a bill that enjoys broad support.

Snowe also indicated that she wasn’t ignorant of public opinion on health care reform, which remains mixed.

“I’m focusing on getting the best strategy so we can maximize support among Republicans and Democrats and of course the American people,— Snowe said.

Despite significant disagreement over how to achieve a health care overhaul, Durbin and Cornyn agreed the time is now to try to get something done.

“The American people are ready for it, we are closer to victory than we’ve ever been,— Durbin said, adding that a failure to act would “make things overwhelmingly worse.—

“This is our chance,— he continued. “If we don’t do it this time we won’t have the chance to do it in my lifetime.—

Durbin stopped short of setting a specific time line for passage, however, saying only that he thinks Congress “can— get a bill done by Thanksgiving as Vice President Joseph Biden had suggested. The No. 2 Senate Democrat also asked Republicans to work with Democrats to put a bill together, although he said the majority is going forward with or without the other party.

“The fact is we’re not going to miss this opportunity,— Durbin said.

Cornyn said Republicans would also like to see a reform package pass Congress this year. Cornyn said Obama offered up some good ideas during his joint address to Congress last week, but so far, those ideas haven’t been reflected in the Democratic proposals working their way through the House and Senate. He said there’s a “disconnect— between what Obama said and what’s actually been put in writing.

“We’d like to work with the president and the Democrats to come up with a common sense solution,— he said, adding that the two parties agree on about 80 percent of what should be contained in a reform package.