Friday Talking Points [112] -- Public Option's Last Stand

Before we begin here, I'd like to humbly propose a new law. No American television station should be allowed to have an exclusive contract for any Olympic games. Period.

Who's with me?

I thought about doing this column today in the spirit of the National Broadcasting Company's Olympic coverage. It would have gone something like this: post the title of the article, but then have the entire text read: "Check back in four hours for our Friday Talking Points coverage." Then, I would have released the winners of our weekly awards to the rest of the internet, so everyone would know who won before actually reading the article. Next, I would have updated the article here, but instead of the text of FTP, what you would have gotten instead would be a half-hour video of Bob Costas picking his nose. With inane commentary. And a video, complete with home movies of him as a kid, about how Bob Costas has had a lifetime of nasal problems which he has overcome so that he can proudly root in his snoot in front of millions of viewers (hours after it happened, of course). Finally, I would have posted the article's text, hours after you expected to see it. But it wouldn't have the awards, since we would have to move the awards to the end, and given them their own separate column, in an effort to make more money. Around one o'clock in the morning, I would have posted the actual awards themselves.

Now picture a brighter future (other, of course, than being able to read this column fully "live" today, as usual) -- one that has many television networks vying for your eyeballs in the spirit of (economic) competition. You could choose to see the events live, say on ESPN or PBS, or you could choose to wait for Bob Costas to explain it all to you hours later (complete with a soundtrack of either tinkly piano music, brassy horns, or violins softly playing).

I'm guessing that the whole NBC concept of "let's make the Olympics a soap opera rather than treating it as sports coverage" would lose horribly in the ratings competition, personally.


Sorry, I get this way every time NBC screws up what should be an exciting event. Which they do, every single time, like clockwork. It is especially galling this year, because I am in the same time zone as the Olympics, and yet we are not allowed to watch anything live on NBC. Sheesh.

But enough of this Andy-Rooney-esque grumpiness. Let's get on with it. We've got a single issue for everyone today, rather than a mishmash of politics, since not much happened in Washington this week, due to Congress taking their thirtieth week-long vacation so far this year. Wait, that can't be right... perhaps I exaggerate a wee bit. Enough of this silliness, though. Let's get on with the show.


I don't normally consider the media eligible for awards here, since they're technically supposed to be non-partisan and all of that. But I have to at least mention Rachel Maddow, for bravely committing an act of journalism on -- of all places -- David Gregory's Sunday Idiocy Hour, otherwise known as Meet The Press. Maddow, last Sunday, did a great job of pointing out actual facts to the roundtable at the end of the show. Whenever statements were made that were wildly untrue, Maddow would point it out: "That's not true, here are the facts." Over and over again. Especially enjoyable was her evisceration of a Republican Congressman who railed against the stimulus package, but had just recently shown up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a project funded by the same stimulus package. Something which surprised the other "journalists" at the table because such actual journalism, to them, is like a cold bucket of water in their faces. You do some research, you have your facts at hand, and then you sit down to talk to someone. This stunning, stunning act of journalism on a Sunday morning simply demands recognition here. So Maddow gets at least a Most Impressive Journalist award this week (since we, as always, retain the right to make such awards up whenever we feel like it).

But the real news last week from actual Democrats was the Bennet letter.

Freshman Senator Michael Bennet from the great state of Colorado committed an similarly-astounding act of actual Democratic leadership in the Senate this week. I know -- you could've knocked me over with a feather, too! After all, the words "Democratic" and "Senate" and "leadership" aren't seen within the same sentence very often these days, are they?

Bennet sat down and wrote a letter. To back it up, he then wrote an article making the case to "save the public option." The full text of this letter will be presented later, in lieu of talking points this week, because it makes such a strong and well-reasoned case for using the parliamentary tactic of budget reconciliation to pass a health reform bill which includes the public option. Call it the public option's last stand.

What this would mean, of course, is that the public option would pass the Senate under rules which only require 50 votes (assuming Joe Biden's on hand to break a tie). Meaning if 50 Democratic senators sign the letter, it means it would pass.

So far, depending on who you listen to, 17 to 20 senators are on board, and have signed. Including some very big names indeed. A website ( has been set up to track the effort, where you can even "sign" the letter yourself, to show your support. The site's main page shows a running list of who in the Senate has signed the letter, and who has not. I strongly urge anyone in favor of a public option to check this list for your own senators, and give them a call if you don't see their name listed as a signatory. Bennet has also set up a site (part of his re-election campaign site) called where you can also "sign" the letter.

While every senator who has signed the letter so far (again, here's the list) deserves at least an Honorable Mention this week for doing so, we have to give the actual Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to not only Senator Michael Bennet, but also to the other three Democrats who initially co-signed the letter along with Bennet: Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Jeff Merkley, and Sherrod Brown.

This is leadership. This is how to get things done in the Senate -- or at least, how to attempt getting something done. And this is the most impressive thing that happened all week.

So, for doing the Democratic leadership's job for them, Senators Bennet, Gillibrand, Merkley, and Brown have more than earned their MIDOTW this week.

[Congratulate Senator Michael Bennet on his Senate contact page, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on her Senate contact page, Senator Jeff Merkley on his Senate contact page, and Senator Sherrod Brown on his Senate contact page, to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


First up, a blanket award to every Democratic senator who has not signed the Bennet letter yet. Let's call it the Sign The Damn Letter, Already! award, since we seem to be in the mood for making up awards this week. Currently, there are around 40 of these, meaning the public option reconciliation effort still has a long way to go. Check the list. Give your senator a call if they haven't signed.

But we simply must single out here the actual Democratic "leadership" in the Senate. The top two "leadership" folks right now are Senate Majority "Leader" Harry Reid, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. "Leader" Reid is supposed to... well... lead. It's right there in the title, Harry. Whip Durbin is supposed to "whip" the votes into shape in his own caucus. Call him the chief vote-counter.

In simple terms, these are the two guys who are supposed to be doing what Bennet is attempting to do with his letter. Bennet's letter is addressed to these guys, in a desperate attempt for them to -- if not actually lead themselves, at the very least get out of the way when someone else grabs the reins in an act of actual leadership.

Huffington Post has a statement (contained in an article which is being constantly updated with who has signed and who hasn't) from Durbin's office:

Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, said that the Majority Whip has a policy of not signing on to letters sent to leadership since, after all, he's a member of leadership. "That would be like sending a letter to himself," said Shoemaker, adding, "Durbin has a pretty clear record on his support for a public option."

He said that Durbin has yet to take a public position on whether the bill should be moved through reconciliation and wasn't immediately available. He has been traveling in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa for the last several days.

And here is the tepid response to the letter so far from Harry Reid:

Senator Reid has always and continues to support the public option as a way to drive down costs and create competition. That is why he included the measure in his original health care proposal.

If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care, Senator Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes.

Seriously, guys? That's it?

Durbin, when he gets back in touch with this continent, is going to have to do better than that. This isn't a "love note from a girlfriend" type of letter, Senator Durbin, it is a political statement. In other words, it doesn't matter that you are an addressee, because the letter's purpose is to get Harry Reid to do something. So, how about a statement which says: "I have a policy of not signing letters to leadership, but I would certainly sign this letter if I wasn't in the leadership, and I fully support the goals of the letter." About five seconds after you get back in touch with the American press, say. And then you can prove it by whipping the heck out of other Democrats to build support for the movement.

Reid's statement just makes me shudder.

Seriously, this is a new level of the wimpiness usually exemplified by the statement: "mistakes were made." Reid's second paragraph starts off with: "If a decision is made..."

[Insert mental image of me pounding my head against a brick wall here... Bang!... Bang!... Bang!....]

Let us put this in a way even Harry Reid can understand, shall we?

Harry... hey, Harry, do I have your attention? Here's the deal, Harry -- YOU are the one who is SUPPOSED to make such decisions. YOU! If you are waiting on "if a decision is made" then we are all doomed, because you have to be the one who makes it! This, Harry -- this right here -- is why the voters of Nevada are going to send you into early retirement later this year. This is why a whole bunch of Democrats at this point would actually be glad to see that happen because it would mean we would get a new leader in the Senate -- and one who knows what the job description means when it says "leader," even if we would have to give up a seat to do so.

So, Harry, do I have your attention yet?


Harry Reid could have (and should have) done exactly what Bennet (et al.) are now doing -- last September. Reid tried to draw a line in the sand at the end of the summer on the health reform delays in Max Baucus' committee, by saying that if a bill hadn't gotten through the Senate with 60 votes by the middle of October, he was going to use budget reconciliation rules to send it through anyway. Reid and Durbin should have followed this bold statement up with exactly what Bennet is doing now -- getting a whip count for who would support the effort, and then threatening recalcitrant Blue Dog Democrats with the fact that they would be irrelevant to the process if they didn't get their act together. All of this should have taken place from mid-September of last year, to mid-October. It didn't. Because Reid and Durbin did nothing.

Which brings us to (with what I feel are more appropriate titles) the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award. This week, the MDDOTW goes to none other than Senate Majority Follower Harry Reid, and Senate Majority Whippee Dick Durbin. Don't look now, guys, but there's a group of freshmen Democratic senators who are doing the job you're supposed to be doing.

[Contact Senator Harry Reid on his Senate contact page, and Senator Dick Durbin on his Senate contact page, to let them know what you think of their actions.]


Volume 112 (2/19/10)

Because this truly is the public option's last stand, and because it's such a ripping good letter, this week instead of our usual lame attempt at providing Democratic talking points, we present instead the full text of the Bennet letter. If you want the public option, this may be the last chance it ever gets.

Here is the full text of the Bennet letter:


Dear Leader Reid:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach -- its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.


A Public Option Is an Important Tool for Restoring Fiscal Discipline.

As Democrats, we pledged that the Senate health care reform package would address skyrocketing health care costs and relieve overburdened American families and small businesses from annual double-digit health care cost increases. And that it would do so without adding a dime to the national debt.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that the Senate health reform bill is actually better than deficit neutral. It would reduce the deficit by over $130 billion in the first ten years and up to $1 trillion in the first 20 years.

These cost savings are an important start. But a strong public option can be the centerpiece of an even better package of cost saving measures. CBO estimated that various public option proposals in the House save at least $25 billion. Even $1 billion in savings would qualify it for consideration under reconciliation.

Put simply, including a strong public option is one of the best, most fiscally responsible ways to reform our health insurance system.


A Public Option Would Provide Americans with a Low-Cost Alternative and Improve Market Competitiveness.

A strong public option would create better competition in our health insurance markets. Many Americans have no or little real choice of health insurance provider. Far too often, it's "take it or leave it" for families and small businesses. This lack of competition drives up costs and leaves private health insurance companies with little incentive to provide quality customer service.

A recent Health Care for America Now report on private insurance companies found that the largest five for-profit health insurance providers made $12 billion in profits last year, yet they actually dropped 2.7 million people from coverage. Private insurance -- by gouging the public even during a severe economic recession -- has shown it cannot function in the public's interest without a public alternative. Americans have nowhere to turn. That is not healthy market competition, and it is not good for the public.

If families or individuals like their current coverage through a private insurance company, then they can keep that coverage. And in some markets where consumers have many alternatives, a public option may be less necessary. But many local markets have broken down, with only one or two insurance providers available to consumers. Each and every health insurance market should have real choices for consumers.


There is a history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation.

There is substantial Senate precedent for using reconciliation to enact important health care policies. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare Advantage, and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), which actually contains the term 'reconciliation' in its title, were all enacted under reconciliation.

The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein and Brookings' Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds jointly wrote, "Are Democrats making an egregious power grab by sidestepping the filibuster? Hardly." They continued that the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes is "much more extensive . . . than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days."


There is strong public support for a public option, across party lines.

The overwhelming majority of Americans want a public option. The latest New York Times poll on this issue, in December, shows that despite the attacks of recent months Americans support the public option 59% to 29%. Support includes 80% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and even 33% of Republicans.

Much of the public identifies a public option as the key component of health care reform -- and as the best thing we can do to stand up for regular people against big insurance companies. In fact, overall support for health care reform declined steadily as the public option was removed from reform legislation.

Although we strongly support the important reforms made by the Senate-passed health reform package, including a strong public option would improve both its substance and the public's perception of it. The Senate has an obligation to reform our unworkable health insurance market -- both to reduce costs and to give consumers more choices. A strong public option is the best way to deliver on both of these goals, and we urge its consideration under reconciliation rules.


Michael Bennet (D-CO), U.S. Senator

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Senator

Jeff Merkley (D-OR), U.S. Senator

Sherrod Brown (D-OH), U.S. Senator


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