WASHINGTON ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has taken a lot of heat in the past week over her long-awaited plan to pay for “Medicare for All,” a government-run health care program, that she says doesn’t include raising taxes on the middle class.
Her moderate rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination immediately panned it as unrealistic, however, accusing Warren of relying on “mathematical gymnastics” to fund the multitrillion-dollar proposal. Even Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee weighed in on Wednesday, saying it would never get enacted.
But a group of bipartisan lawmakers in the Senate known as the “Gang of Eight” is also voicing skepticism about another, relatively smaller feature of Warren’s plan: its reliance on the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, a similarly controversial policy fight in Washington.
The group of eight senators shepherded a sweeping immigration bill with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in 2013 only to watch it fail in the House, which was controlled by Republicans at the time. It is the last major immigration reform bill that has passed in the sharply divided Senate, eliciting deep skepticism on Capitol Hill about the prospect of another bipartisan breakthrough in the near future.
“Candidates can talk about controversial issues in more positive terms than those of us who have to roll up our sleeves and try to work on them day to day,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who was a member of the group.
Fellow Gang of Eight member Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was similarly dubious of the financing plan, telling HuffPost that “getting that done and getting the savings are two different things.”
While cost estimates for Medicare for All have varied, Warren’s campaign pegged the number at the low end of $20 trillion in new money over the next decade. The program would be financed with new taxes on corporations and the wealthy, but also in other ways like the increased revenue generated by legalizing undocumented immigrants and increasing legal immigration.
Using the 2013 immigration bill as a model, Warren’s campaign estimated that it would generate $400 billion toward paying for Medicare for All, even when taking into account the cost of providing health care for newly legalized immigrants.
Durbin doubted, however, that all those savings would actually come to fruition.
“There was a lot of money involved but we had it directed toward a certain purpose. I wouldn’t sign up for Elizabeth’s idea until she explained to me how we’d be able to balance it out,” he said.
Republican members of the Gang of 8 were even more unconvinced about Warren’s plan to pay for Medicare for All in part by passing comprehensive immigration reform.
“When you’re running for president, you have a plan like that ― you just make it up,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who himself once ran for president in 2016.
To Rubio’s and Durbin’s point, most proposals laid out by presidential candidates tend to fudge the numbers a bit. They’re often better viewed as a road map of the candidate’s values and priorities once in office ― when the real sausage-making begins. Take Donald Trump, for example. The president promised as a candidate that Mexico would pay for his border wall. Instead, he declared a national emergency and took the money from the Pentagon. The 2017 $1.5 trillion tax cut law, meanwhile, is nowhere near paying for itself as Republicans and the White House repeatedly promised before the deficit hit $1 trillion.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) identified another hurdle to Warren’s proposal: how to get either immigration reform or Medicare for All through the Senate even if Democrats win control of the chamber next year. Warren says she has a plan for this: eliminating the long-standing Senate filibuster, which requires a 60-vote threshold on legislation, to push many of her proposals through Congress.
But to get rid of the filibuster, she’ll have to get some of her recalcitrant Democratic colleagues on board, too, who fear what Republicans would do in a scenario in which they once again control both Congress and the White House.
“It’s a heavy lift,” said Graham, who also served on the Gang of 8.
The South Carolina Republican did have a suggestion for Warren on how to finance her plan, though.
“Put climate change in there, too. Get some carbon free money,” he quipped earlier this week.
Warren, for her part, responded to criticism of her plan on Thursday with one of her favorite arguments.
“You don’t get what you don’t fight for,” she said in an interview in South Carolina, when asked about Clinton’s remarks.
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