Operation Picket Fence Demands A Straight Answer from Senator McCaskill: Will She Back Robust Public Option?

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Wednesday, St. Louis was once again the accidental center of the political universe for corporatist Democrats. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) attended as President Obama headlined the fundraiser for Democratic party favorites and was the primary beneficiary of his political largess.

Staged at the Renaissance Hilton and priced at $2400 a plate, the event could hardly be termed "grassroots". Local glitterati waltzed down the sidewalk as protestors crowded the sidewalks outside the hotel.

Inside the venue, Claire McCaskill was compared to Harry Truman, yet remained unresponsive to constituents outside the hotel picketing outside. Their chief message demanded an answer to whether or not McCaskill would pledge to vote for a robust public option as a major component of the health reform bill. More specifically, would McCaskill sign the Bennet letter pledging to use reconciliation for the express purpose of forcing a vote based on a simple majority in order to win the public option? Will she 'stop fence sitting' and take a stand for her constituents, the very people unable to afford the 2400 dollar price of admission to this black tie event? McCaskill failed to acknowledge the crowd, much less address their concerns -- after all rubber chicken was waiting.

Senator McCaskill, a close and valued ally of President Obama, was an early supporter of his candidacy when it was politically difficult -- so, in the 'show me' state. WE KNOW that the Senator can make a stand and remain true to her goals. This is exactly why so many activist groups are frustrated with her perpetual 'fence-sitting' regarding the provision of a robust public option.

In response to the good senator's public reticence, several grass roots/net roots activist groups have banded together to 'call out' our senator and demand that she publicly commit to a robust Public Option as part of the proposed health reform bill. Collectively, they are demanding a straight answer from the very senator who claims to be, as Harry Truman once said--a 'straight shooter.' They want to know, will Senator McCaskill sign the Bennet letter pledging to authorize reconciliation to win a robust pubic option as part of the health reform bill? No more fence sitting, no more study groups, just a straight shooting yes or no vote.

So far 41 senators have indicated via the Bennet letter or statement that they will vote YEA to using reconciliation as a way to end Republican and conservative filibusters and thus authorize a public option for all. The 'stragglers' either refusing to accept reconciliation or refusing to say anything are as follows:

Sen. Max Baucus (D)
Sen. Evan Bayh (D)
Sen. Mark Begich
Sen. Robert Byrd
Sen. Thomas Carper
Sen. Kay Hagan
Sen. Tom Harkin (D)
Sen. Herb Kohl
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D)
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D)
Sen. Mark Pryor
Sen. John Rockefeller
Sen. Mark Warner
Sen. Jim Webb

Of these wayward senators, certain individuals appear to have a conflict of interest. Sen. Bayh's wife has been on the board of directors of Wellpoint for 6 years, and earned 2 million dollars in the process. Sen. Baucus ran the finance committee this summer charged with the task of 'reforming' this industry. Baucus not only refused to consider a public option or single payer, but had representatives from Physicians for A National Health Plan arrested for daring to question his actions. In comparison, McCaskill looks clean. The one thing that has infuriated constituents is her selective parsing of language, her refusal to state her position on the public option.

The groups involved include Democracy for America (over 1 million members), The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (over 400,000 members), CREDO Action, and the newly founded St. Louis Citizen's Plan for Real Health Care Reform, co-written by activist Melanie Shouse just before her untimely death. This is the same activist who was honored by President Obama in a memorial tribute. Melanie's plan was designed to be a 'principled blueprint' for meaningful reform.

Ironically, inside the event President Obama outlined a plan which addressed some of the protester's concerns. Describing his plan as ...'a patient's bill of rights on steroids'; he outlined the three main components. They are as follows:
Guaranteed coverage in spite of preexisting conditions, cover young adults up to age 26, and the practice of POLICY RESCISSION EXPRESSELY FORBIDDEN--so they can't "drop you when you get sick." Creation of a large consumer pool, which will drive down costs according to CBO (Congressional Budget Office). Nowhere in the president's remarks was there any mention of the public option, the Bennet letter pledging to use reconciliation to override any filibuster designed to stall this indefinitely, repeal of the anti-trust exemption, or the protesters outside. The evening was strictly about political egos. Though this plan is a definite step in the right direction, it does not go far enough.

While Senator McCaskill basked in the presidential spotlight, surrounded by fawning political fans; voters outside were threatening to 'stay home' election day and send her packing, like 'they did to Dems in Massachussets.' The message was clear--vote for a strong public option through reconciliation, to begin soon, or lose your job, senator.

Going further into the crowd, there was a strong consensus--the people in this conservative state truly wanted a single payer, expanded 'medicare for all' system, but believed that was politically impossible right now. They viewed a strong public option open to all as a critical first step toward that goal.

Activists in these groups couldn't understand McCaskill's silence on using reconciliation to obtain the public option. While McCaskill was quoted this past summer as supporting the public option, providing the private insurers could compete fairly, her republican colleague Sen. Susan Collins decried 'reconciliation' 'an abuse of senate rules.' Collins further stated that the use of reconciliation ..."would poison the atmosphere very badly in this institution."

McCaskill's worry that private insurers might not be able to compete equally against a public option of any type is ingenuous at best. As an attorney and a former state prosecutor in Missouri, she is well acquainted with the anti-trust exemption enjoyed nationwide by only one industry--health insurance corporations. Consequently, THERE IS NO COMPETITION for insurers from any outside sources; they are a guaranteed monopoly contained within 4 or 5 companies.

McCaskill has also been quoted regarding the effect any public option might have on the federal deficit. After reviewing the latest CBO figures; she has conditioned any public option on it being 'deficit neutral.' She has not offered any plans which would make the public option financially viable, such as redistributing tax dollars.

Both senators are severely out of touch with the American public. As Senator Collins worries about some mutable 'atmosphere,' and McCaskill frets over the insurance giants having to compete for business; multiple citizen advocacy groups conducted 'citizen arrests' of insurance executives and their attorneys for crimes against all of us, during the annual conference for the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU) in DC. Leaders from 50 major labor and religious groups led the crowd on March 9th. What the centrist democrats are banking on is the idea that they are the only 'game in town.' Pushing the 'lesser of the two evils' argument; they fail to notice angry political winds turning into hurricanes. It is curious to note that since self-identified democrats are threatening to 'stay home on election day' and repeat 'the Massachusetts thing,' this plan has inched closer to real reform as opposed to symbolic rubberstamping.

Like Harry Truman, the protesters were 'speaking truth to power.' They not only intend to give the DC political establishment 'hell', but as Harry said: they're "going to tell the truth and they'll think it's hell."