The Hill

Liberals Ramp Up Healthcare Pressure

The Hill — Wednesday, April 8, 2009

By Alexander Bolton

A coalition of liberal groups are waging a broad national campaign to build pressure on conservative Democrats and centrist Republicans who may not support President Obama's vision for healthcare reform.

The coalition, Health Care for America Now (HCAN), which includes groups such as ACORN, the AFL-CIO, Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn.org, has not begun to target individual lawmakers but is making a loud call for a potentially controversial element of Obama's reform plan.

Specifically, liberal groups are waging a national grassroots campaign this week to demand that all Americans be given access to government-run public health insurance plans. They are also demanding that lawmakers support a procedural tactic that would allow Senate passage of healthcare reform without any Republican votes.

Several of the groups in the coalition targeted conservative Democrats such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana for opposing the use of the procedure, known as budget reconciliation, to protect Obama's agenda from GOP filibusters.

Organizers believe their efforts will pressure centrist Democrats and Republicans to line up behind Obama's healthcare proposal, which calls for all Americans to have the choice of a public insurance plan.

"There are a lot of different organizations and a lot of folks at the grassroots level who will be pushing very hard for the public insurance option," said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who helped put the coalition together and serves as a consultant to it.

"The campaign that all these groups are doing will involve grassroots and media and all kinds of legislative campaign tactics. There will be a lot of push for Democrats to get on board with that."

Centrist Democrats in the Senate have proven troublesome for the Obama administration in recent weeks. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) made substantial revisions to Obama's budget proposal in order to attract their support.

Liberals want to make sure that Obama's healthcare plan does not get watered down in similar fashion.

HCAN has organized more than 100 events in 44 states this week and next to pressure Democrats in Congress to adopt a budget resolution that provides reconciliation protection for healthcare reform.

This will enable Democrats to pass a more liberal healthcare package through the Senate later this year. That's because reconciliation protection would require only 50 votes to pass legislation instead of the 60 usually needed.

The coalition is also demanding nationwide access to a government-run public insurance plan for the uninsured.

"We want quality affordable healthcare for all Americans in 2009; comprehensive benefits that meet people's needs; and a choice of private or public health insurance plans," said Jacki Schechner, the coalition's communications director. "We believe everybody should have the choice of public health insurance."

On Wednesday, Campaign for America's Future, a member of HCAN's steering committee, released a 27-page report arguing for a nationwide public insurance option.

"One of the key reasons for public plan choice is that public plans can offer a set of valued features that private plans are generally either unable or unwilling to provide," the report states. Phil Singer, a Democratic strategist, said the coalition's efforts would help Obama advance his healthcare agenda.

"Advocates for health reform see a window of opportunity and are trying to keep the drumbeat up," said Singer. "Insofar as they're echoing what the Obama administration is saying, they're helping to advance the ball down the field."

Senate Republicans have already voiced their opposition to giving all Americans access to government-run health insurance.

"Forcing free market plans to compete with these government-run programs would create an unlevel playing field and inevitably doom true competition," several senior Senate Republicans wrote in a letter to Obama dated March 4.

"Ultimately, we would be left with a single government-run program controlling all of the market. This would take health care decisions out of the hands of doctors and patients and place them in the hands of another Washington bureaucracy."

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) signed the letter.

Democratic strategists expect that centrist Democrats may also balk at creating a public insurance option for all Americans. One liberal activist said she expected Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) to hold out.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Finance Committee, has authored a healthcare reform proposal that would only make government-run public insurance plans available in areas where people have a limited choice of private insurance plans.

This is not acceptable to liberal activists.

"HCAN and progressive folks in general and the Obama administration believe that it is absolutely essential to any serious health reform plan to have a public option; otherwise, insurance companies can continue their abusive practices," said Lux, who emphasized that he does not speak for the Obama administration.

"All Americans have to have [a public insurance option]. If you have 10 different private insurances plans that are all bad, that doesn't help [the consumer] that much."

Several Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to Wyden's plan, including Sens. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

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