One of the leading Senate Democrats in the health care reform battle said that the seating of Al Franken has given the party the purpose and direction it needs to ensure that a public option for insurance coverage remains in any bill.
"If you did a consensus within the Democratic Party, you would find the level-playing-field public option to be the answer," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "And now that we have 60 votes, it seems to me like we don't have to turn it inside out for something we don't like."
In an interview with the Huffington Post conducted over the July 4 weekend, Schumer offered a detailed and frank assessment of the political landscape of the current health care debate. Predicting that the final bill will include a public plan, he painted the Republican Party as rigid to a fault when it comes to negotiations.
"This is where we are going to end up," he said of a health care overhaul that included a public plan. "And I think, it would be much better for the Senate Finance Committee if we did it in the committee... I think the Senate HELP committee compromised already, because you have a lot of members on the HELP committee who would've liked [the public option] to be much closer to Medicare. The idea seems to be catching everybody's imagination, and sense of fairness. And the only holdouts are sort of ideologues on the Republican side of this saying no government involvement whatsoever."
At this juncture, Schumer added, there were potentially nonnegotiable divides between the proposals offered by the few moderate Republicans and the sentiments of the vast majority of the Democratic Party. This included the notion of having a public option with triggers, which because it would require that certain economic conditions be met before the government plan became operational, is seen as a possible compromise approach.
"My bottom-line criteria is that it has to be strong, national, and available to everyone on day one, to keep the insurance companies honest and I'm not sure we can get there," Schumer said. "I've been talking to [Sen.] Olympia [Snowe] about this," he added, referring to the trigger option's main proponent in the Senate, "but I'm not sure we can bridge that gap."
Similarly critical remarks were offered for the idea of replacing a public plan with health care co-ops, which Schumer described as insufficient and unpractical.
"[Sen. Chuck] Grassley hasn't closed the door, but it seems in general that his model of co-op is little co-ops popping up like they do in farm country," he said. "And the model that we are saying we need is they have to be strong, national and available everywhere from the first day. And I think we are very far apart on this."
"So I don't think the co-op way can work," Schumer added. "So let's go back and do what we should be doing: a public option."
Over the past few months, Schumer has taken a leading role in charting the Democratic Party's approach to the health care debate. He has often pushed the envelope further than any of his colleagues, drawing lines in the sand on a public option and eagerly calling out the GOP, when the modus operandi among most Democrats has been to pursue bipartisanship. In public, the progressive community has praised his leadership. In private, they've wished that the Obama White House would adopt a similarly aggressive posture.
"The White House has stuck with me on a public option and they consulted with me early on and so far so good," said Schumer, when asked if the president had been too passive in his approach to health care. "On public option, I think Obama's stayed pretty strong. And I think the idea of him coming in when needed is important. And the main function he's been having is not taking any specific provision but saying 'get it done, get it done, get it done.' That's [Chief of Staff] Rahm [Emanuel]'s mantra. And that's helpful."
The next few weeks, as Schumer noted, could be the most critical yet in the process of crafting a health care bill. The Finance and HELP committee will begin seeing how and where their two bills can be combined. At the same time, lobbying efforts are expected to be stepped up on the Hill, with the targets likely to be Democrats already skeptical of the public plan.
That said, the past week included two key breakthroughs for progressives hoping to lead the reform process. The first was the Congressional Budget Office scoring the HELP committee's proposal at a relatively slim $600 billion. Though Schumer noted that the figure could rise with amendments, he added, "what the CBO is saying, if you're a fiscal conservative you ought to be for a public option because it saves money."
The other advance was the seating of Al Franken as Senator of Minnesota, which, theoretically, should give the Democratic Party the voting margin it needs to withstand a Republican filibuster.
"I think Democrats, now that we have 60, it's an opportunity but it's a greater responsibility," said Schumer. "And unity among ourselves is very important."