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Earl Ofari Hutchinson Headshot

Congressional Progressives Will Cave to Obama on Health Care

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For weeks before President Obama's congressional speech on health care reform, Congressional Progressive Caucus members showered him with letters, pleading with him to meet with them. Obama couldn't or wouldn't make the time. Caucus members were undaunted, and they continued to ply the White House with letters begging for a meeting. They should have gotten the message. Obama has little interest in hearing them nag him to stand firm and back the public option. He's heard that enough.

Obama has made it clear through press leaks, off-the-cuff comments from senior administrative staff members and even a cabinet member, and in his speeches--including his--congressional speech that he will not fight for a public option if it gets in the way of a final deal on a health care reform bill.

The final bill that he will sign will be written, shaped, and crafted by Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus. And Baucus has made it just as clear that a fully functioning public option, sans the trigger gimmick, not only will not be part of his final bill, but was never part of negotiations between the key Democrats and Republicans on his committee. There's absolutely no evidence that Obama objected to committee members dumping the public option from their committee talks.

The more outspoken Congressional Progressive members, John Conyers, Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters, and Keith Ellison have publicly saber-rattled that they will not back a bill without a real public option. And they say that they may have as many as 80 to 100 members who will pledge to stand with them. The odds are, that number will shrink faster than the polar ice caps when the deal happens. The final House bill may be watered down or without a public option at all.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent the same clear signal that Obama sent that the public option must not be allowed to muddy up the picture, in getting a final bill out of the House. Pelosi back-slid after a meeting with Obama at the White House a day after his congressional speech. This is another ominous sign that the public option is DOA.

There's no mystery as to why Congressional Progressives will splinter, fracture, and fall apart on the public option. They do not want to be seen as wreckers, obstructionists and spoilers. They do not want to get on the wrong side of the White House. They do not want to risk ceding total power to Pelosi and Red Dog Democrats to totally set the legislative agenda in the House. They do not want to be seen as entering into an unholy alliance with House Republicans. This bunch will almost certainly vote as a bloc against anything that Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership churns out on health care.

But the biggest reason that House Progressives will cave is that they are Democrats first and progressives second. The Democratic Party is Obama's party, and progressives in the party still have faith, maybe blind faith, that President Obama is still--despite all the political deal making, jockeying and maneuvering--the same Obama who once opposed the Iraq War, pledged to battle for stronger civil rights and civil liberties protections, firmly backed abortion and gay rights, and even at one time a single payer health care plan.

House Progressives will talk loudly about breaking ranks with Obama on his health care bill, but they won't. It's simply too personally and politically painful for them to shed hope that President Obama is not the same Obama whom progressives regarded and still regard as one of (and with) them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January, 2010.