(NNPA)—This is a defining week for Democrats who must decide whether to press for the public option in health care and risk losing the support of a lonely Republican senator or press for the measure to avoid offending an increasingly vocal segment of its base.
The Senate is expected to come up with a bill this week, after much wrangling, and send it to the Congressional Budget Office for an official pricing. After being declared dead in the Senate, the public option—a government plan to compete with insurance companies to lower prices—saw a strong revival on the heels of public opinion polls showing more than half of all Americans favor such a plan.
In order to win over some reluctant Democrats, states will be allowed to opt out of the program.
“My guess is that the public option level playing field with the state opt out will be in the bill,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York said on “Meet the Press.”
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party has grown increasingly irritated by the mixed signals emanating from the White House. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama advocated health reform that includes the public option, saying that’s the only way to drive down escalating insurance premiums.
After assuming office, President Obama has alternately expressed support for the public option and dismissing it as a “sliver” of the overall plan to reform the $2.5 trillion annual health care system.
Savaged by misleading TV commercials sponsored by conservative groups, progressives finally started fighting back, proving that so-called death panels were never proposed and pointing out that the United States is the only country in the industrialized world without a national health plan. The U.S. spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, but ranks 37th in overall health, according to the World Health Organization.
The best way to make health care insurance more affordable is to offer a program similar to Medicare that would compete directly with health insurance companies.
But the Republican leadership in Congress, members who regularly extol the virtues of market-driven competition, do not want to see the kind of competition offered by a public option. Evidently, they are in a minority.
“The American people are for some alternative that will create some competition for the abuses of the insurance industry,” Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said on “Face the Nation.”
Public opinion polls support Feingold’s view. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in October that 57 percent of Americans favor creation of a “government-administered public health insurance option.”
A poll by the Washington Post and ABC News produced similar findings. Respondents were asked: “Would you support or oppose having the government create a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans?”
Overall, 57 percent preferred the government action. As expected, the support was higher among Democrats—77 percent—and lower among Republicans at 26 percent. A majority of independents—57 percent—expressed support for the government option.
With clear public support behind the public option, why are Democrats acting like such wimps?
In Obama’s case, he still holds out hope that he can garner bipartisan support for health care and other programs. In fact, he has placed an inordinate amount of attention on winning the vote of Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the only Republican who seems willing to consider supporting the administration’s health care bill.
Snowe objects to the public option, preferring to establish a triggering mechanism that will go into effect if the insurance companies fail to meet certain targets. With Snowe’s vote, Democrats will have the 60 votes needed in the senate to overcome an expected GOP filibuster.
But Obama should not be willing to throw his core supporters overboard just to win Snowe’s vote and falsely claim that he has obtained some kind of bipartisan victory. The reality is that bipartisan, by definition, requires the cooperation of the other side. But Republican leaders have made a political calculation that the best way to regain power is to obstruct everything the administration proposes.
The GOP has become the “party of no.” No to legislation stabilizing Wall Street. No to a stimulus plan. No to true health care reform. No, no, no.
There are signs that Republicans are paying a price for strident opposition.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that only 19 percent of those questioned expressed confidence in Republicans’ ability to make the right decisions for America’s future; 79 percent lacked such confidence. The poll contained additional bad news for the GOP. Only 20 percent of voters consider themselves Republicans, the lowest figure since the Washington Post started collecting such data in 1983.
This week is a major test for the Obama administration. If Obama and congressional Democrats can pass health care legislation containing the public option, that will indeed be change we can believe in. On the other hand, if Democrats fail, they will be, in the words of James Brown, talking loud and saying nothing.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at twitter.com/currygeorge.)