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Lowell Weicker, Lieberman's First GOP Opponent, Touts Government-Run Insurance

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One dominant feature of the story of Sen. Joseph Lieberman's role in the current health care debate is the regret felt by some Connecticut voters who once supported his candidacies.

That is not limited to the 2006 election, when the Connecticut senator lost the Democratic primary to the more progressive Ned Lamont, only to run and win in the general as an Independent. It also includes recollections of Lieberman's initial run for the Senate in 1988.

Back then his opponent was Lowell Weicker, the erstwhile moderate Republican Senator who -- like Lieberman -- was best known as an irritant to his own party's leadership. Lieberman used Weicker's independence against him in the election, accusing the Senator of fairweatheredness: of being neither a "real Republican" nor a "real Democrat" -- an accusation that could now be aptly applied to the accuser.

Politics being what it is, Democrats were jubilant in 1988 when Lieberman wrested control of a Senate seat long in GOP hands (given Weicker's moderate positions, the National Review rejoiced at his departure as well). Looking back now, however, a bit of buyers' remorse has set in for some voters.

While Lieberman was busy derailing hopes for a public option for insurance coverage in recent months, Weicker was giving speeches touting the role government should play in the health care system. In a little-noticed address the former senator gave to the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut in late October, he made the following declaration:

Senators and Representatives have great health insurance paid for by the citizenry -- us. In addition, they have a first rate "medical home" with access to check ups and preventive care at the Bethesda Naval Hospital or the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and a complete physician's office in the Capitol. As a retired Senator, I still carry my government health insurance which covers me, my wife, and disabled son at a rate of some three hundred plus dollars a month.

So, I know Congress can take care of itself. Now we need to remind them that they have to take care of the rest of the country. Every American, regardless of race, ethnicity, and economic circumstances should have the opportunity to be as healthy as he or she can be. Since this is a representative democracy, every American deserves the same health care as a member of Congress. If that's too expensive for the nation, then it's too expensive for Congress.

The remarks may not have been an explicit endorsement of a public plan (as it was conceived by Democratic lawmakers in the House and the Senate). But associates of Weicker tell the Huffington Post that he is, indeed, supportive of such a provision. Laura Segal, a spokesperson for Trust for America's Health -- a health care reform advocacy group on which Weicker serves as president of the board -- said that, in an ideal world Weicker would "favor [a] single-payer" health care system. The executive director of the group, Jeff Levi, added that both the organization and Weicker understood that the public option was both popular and efficacious.

"We certainly make the general observation that the public option is not something to be afraid of," said Levi. "And that, whether it was in the form of Medicare expansion or creating an [additional] plan, millions of millions of Americans like a government-run option. No one wants their Medicare taken away and that is a perfect example of a public option. When the market fails, the government steps in. We do that with Medicare. We do that with Medicaid with poor people and disabled people. Almost half of health care spending now is government spending."

Weicker, who is currently traveling and unreachable for comment, switched party affiliations later in his career and won election as an Independent candidate for governor. His evolution as a political figure somewhat reflects the changing politics in the Nutmeg state and the broader New England region -- where more moderate Republicans have been purged in favor of liberal Democrats. And yet, while Weicker gravitated away from the principles of the GOP, his former opponent (Lieberman) has moved towards them, much to his and others' chagrin.

"Very frankly, if he doesn't want to be held accountable... on an issue as important as this, it's not going to bode well for him in the future,'' Weicker told The Hartford Courant during the height of the health care debate. "The state is very much for health care reform. There comes a day of reckoning.''

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