One of the Senate's most vocal progressives is demanding that the Democratic Party commit to voting against filibustering health care legislation now that, with the impending arrival of Al Franken, the party has 60 caucusing members.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), called on the White House and Democratic leadership in Congress to ensure that party members agree unanimously to support cloture on legislation that would revamp the nation's health care system. Democratic senators on the fence, he added, could still oppose the bill. But at the very least they should be required to let the legislation come to an up-or-down vote.
"I think that with Al Franken coming on board, you have effectively 60 Democrats in the caucus, 58 and two Independents," Sanders said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "I think the strategy should be to say, it doesn't take 60 votes to pass a piece of legislation. It takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster. I think the strategy should be that every Democrat, no matter whether or not they ultimately end up voting for the final bill, is to say we are going to vote together to stop a Republican filibuster. And if somebody who votes for that ends up saying, 'I'm not gonna vote for this bill, it's too radical, blah, blah, blah, that's fine.'"
"I think the idea of going to conservative Republicans, who are essentially representing the insurance companies and the drug companies, and watering down this bill substantially, rather than demanding we get 60 votes to stop the filibuster, I think that is a very wrong political strategy," Sanders added.
Coming hours after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Franken the winner in a nearly eight-month recount process, Sanders' remarks reflect what will likely be a more aggressive political ethos from within the Democratic Party. Having a sixtieth caucusing member in the Senate gives the party the margin it needs to stave off a Republican filibuster, which seems all but certain should health care reform include a public option for insurance coverage. But the reality remains that the Democratic caucus is far from united. Corralling all of its members behind one piece of health care legislation -- especially the public option -- remains elusive.
Sanders' advice, which he hinted at in a separate interview with the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, is to simply take the parliamentary hurdles out of the process. The Party wouldn't have to worry about whip counts and could, in the end, get a more favorable final product, he believes.
"I think that politically that is something everybody can handle. You say, 'Look, I think there should be a vote. I'm gonna vote against it for A, B and C reasons. But I think the process has to move forward and it's unacceptable that Republicans keep trying to stop everything," said the Vermont Independent, who added that "The White House could play a very important part in this process"
"I think it would be great if we could have 100 senators voting for this, but what is important is the product that you get, not bipartisanship," Sanders went on. "So we should ask Republicans to support it. If they choose not to they do so at their own political risk. The focus should be on a strong bill trying to get Republican support rather than a weak bipartisan bill."
To this point, Senator Ben Nelson has hinted that he may oppose a public option for insurance coverage but has told constituents in Nebraska that he could very well support cloture despite opposing the bill itself. Other Democrats on the fence include Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Kay Hagan, of North Carolina, and Diane Feinstein of California.
As for the actual legislation itself, Sanders said he expected a strong public option to come out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions final product, But he worried that it would be "watered down" in order to bring Republican lawmakers on board. The concern, as Sanders expressed it, was that key Democrats in the process -- namely Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. -- were structuring their efforts to recruit Republican support rather than the best policy. He ridiculed the so-called "Coalition of the Willing," a group of four Republicans and three Democrats, organized by Baucus to help craft his reform proposal.
"The people who are sitting around who may determine health reform in the Senate are a majority of Republicans," Sanders said, incredulously.
In its place, Sanders proposed a Coalition of Unwilling -- as in a group of lawmakers unwilling to sacrifice a progressive bill for the sake of bipartisanship.
"Something is very wrong," he said. "What Sen. Baucus said is that the strategy should be to reach out to Republicans. All of them, without exception oppose a public plan. So what you'll end up having is a very weak piece of legislation probably regressively funded. My strategy is different."