The Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid -- and a majority of Members of the Senate -- support the inclusion of public health insurance option in the Senate's health care reform bill. The debate over where the Senate of the United States stands on this question is now settled. The Senate -- like the American people, the House of Representatives and the president -- supports a public option.
What is not settled is whether the majority will be allowed to have an up or down vote on a health care bill that includes a public option.
The question is: will any of the Democratic Senators join with the Republicans to prevent an up or down vote on a bill containing a public option -- one that is supported by the overwhelming majority of the American people?
Will any of those Democratic Senators allow themselves to be used by the insurance industry to stifle the will of the majority of Americans who want to end that industry's stranglehold over the American health care system?
Sixty members of the Senate caucus with Democrats -- 58 Democrats and two independents (Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders). These 60 members share in the benefits of being part of the majority party, including committee chairmanships. Together they control enough votes to end a Republican filibuster aimed at blocking health insurance reform, and allow an up or down vote that this critical bill deserves. This should be a no-brainer. To their credit, many Democrats who are not strong supporters of the public option have in fact indicated that they would not stand in the way of an up or down vote. Yet several Democratic Senators have not yet committed to vote with the Democratic leadership and support a vote to proceed.
Remember that to pass a bill in the Senate you only need 51 votes -- or 50 votes plus the tie-breaking vote of the vice president. We do not need every Democrat to pass a bill. But every one of them must vote to end debate on a bill to allow an up or down vote to take place, since ending debate in the Senate requires 60 votes.
If some Democrats disagree with the content of the bill -- or oppose a public option -- so be it. They should vote no on final passage. But they should never side with the Republicans on a procedural vote to prevent an up or down, majority vote on the substance of the issue.
Frankly, if a Democrat votes against the party on a procedural vote and empowers the Republicans to block a vote on the party's top domestic priority, the caucus should strip that Senator of all of the power that comes from being part of the majority party -- including committee chairmanships.
It is one thing to oppose the substance of a bill. It's another to oppose the party leadership on a procedural motion and block the will of the majority. That kind of breach of party discipline makes it impossible for a majority party to govern. On procedural votes members of a majority party have to stick together or they might as well not be in the majority -- they hand the reins over to the minority.
In this case they would also be thwarting the will of the voters who -- very intentionally -- ended Republican control of Congress and put Democrats in the majority so they could make change.
By voting with Republicans on a procedural vote, a Democrat would, in effect, be handing the gavel back to Republican Senator Mitch McConnell. They would be allowing the minority Republicans and their insurance industry allies to set the parameters for the kind of change is even allowed to come to a vote in Congress.
That would be true on any issue. But it is especially true of the party's marquee issue, health care reform. By joining with the Republicans and preventing its leadership from calling an up or down vote on health care reform, a Democratic Senator would be engaging in a traitorous act. Not only would he or she be preventing implementation of a critical party priority. That Senator would also be politically endangering many of the swing seats held by House and Senate Members who are up for re-election next year.
That's right -- it is the swing district Democrats that would be endangered by the failure to pass President Obama's health insurance reform. Look at what happened after the 1993 failure of the Clinton health plan that was also the centerpiece of his presidency. In 1994, Democrats lost 54 seats. Of those, 36 were incumbents. It wasn't the members from strong Democratic districts, who had fought hard for health care reform, who lost. It was mainly members from swing districts, rural districts and southern districts.
The Clinton health care bill never came to a vote in the House, but only 11 of the 36 incumbents who lost had co-sponsored the bill. Many of the 25 others had opposed the Clinton health care plan. Didn't matter; they were the biggest political victims of the failure of health care reform.
History shows that when the popularity and job performance rating of an incumbent President drops, the odds of swing Democrats being elected to Congress drop as well.
And it wasn't just that swing voters lost faith in Democrats. Base Democratic voters failed to turn out. Republican base voters -- smelling Democratic blood in the waters -- turned out in record numbers.
The fact is that just as a rising political tide lifts all boats, when the political tide recedes those in the shallowest political water are most likely to be left aground.
Failure to take action on health care would be the most likely way to end the majority status for Democrats. Such a failure would massively damage the political standing of the president and the Democrat brand. That, in turn, would sink swing district Democrats. The Republicans know this. That's why they are fighting so hard to prevent the passage of health insurance reform. Any Democratic Senator who helps them is endangering fellow Democrats.
That is particularly true since polls show that the policy question at issue, the public option, is uniformly popular in swing, frontline and Blue Dog districts. The firm of Anzelone Liszt recently released the results of a poll it conducted in 91 Blue Dog, Rural Caucus and frontline districts. The poll found that 54% of the voters in these battleground districts support the choice of a public option.
In fact, throughout the country, giving consumers the choice of a public option is one of the most popular elements of the overall health insurance reform bill.
But what is more important is that Democrats in swing districts need a public option to convince voters to favor a health insurance mandate. Anzeloni and Liszt make clear in their polling report that in swing districts: "It's wrong to think about the public option in isolation from other elements of reform. Forcing an individual mandate without a public option is a clear political loser (34% Favor / 60% Oppose), and only becomes more palatable when a public option is offered in competition with the private sector (50% Favor / 46% Oppose)."
Turns out that a public option provides a political inoculation against backlash to a mandate. That's because people have no stomach for being herded into the arms of private insurance industry like sheep to the slaughter. They want to know that if the government is going to require them to get health insurance, that it also provides the choice of a not-for-profit public plan -- that they are not left at the mercy of private insurance CEO's.
It is fine for each Democrat in the Senate to vigorously advocate his or her own position on health care. But once the majority of the Senate has made up its mind, no Democrat should be allowed to side with the Republicans to block the majority will -- to block the Congress and the President from taking action. Not only would that be terrible for the country -- it threatens the majority status of the Democratic Party.
If a Democratic Senator votes to prevent his party from having an up or down vote on its top domestic priority, he is endangering the political lives of his swing district colleagues. That would be unforgivable.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on amazon.com.
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