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Grassroots Campaign Pushes House on Reform, Fights Lobbyists, 'Granny-Killing' Lies

Progressives have to work even harder to counter the myths about the proposed health-care reform coming from the fringes of the Republican Party now working its way into the mainstream.
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While a key House committee moved to break the impasse on health reform and brokered a deal with health industry-subsidized "Blue Dog" Democrats, labor and grassroots activists kept up the pressure this week on House Blue Dogs and Senate centrists to support genuine reform. That included a national call-in day on Tuesday organized by Health Care for America Now and labor groups that generated 70,000 phone calls to Congress -- and may have helped break the logjam in the House.

At the same time, progressives have to work even harder to counter the myths about the proposed health care reform coming from the fringes of the Republican Party now working its way into the mainstream. These include the claim, echoed on the House floor this week by Rep. Virginia Fox, that because a bill would reimburse doctors who offer advice to patients asking about living wills, the government is planning to kill old people to save health-care costs.

Of course, it's all a fabrication, but a sign of how important grass-roots activism by progressives will be in August through such organizations as Health Care for America Now and the successor to Obama's campaign operation, Organizing for America. That's supplemented by a new set of TV ads promoting reform, like this one expressing the message, "It's time for health care reform."

That urgency hasn't gotten through to the Blue Dogs, yet. Still, "the sky is not falling," notes an AFL-CIO's spokeperson on health care issues, Amaya Tune, about concerns about the deal with the Blue Dogs. "80 percent of what we like has been supported by large majorities in the House, and there's not this acknowledgment that a lot of members have agreed on very important principles. Four committees in the Senate and House have all expressed support for a public option to compete with private insurance."

Of course, the deal between some Blue Dogs and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman came under fire from some liberal groups and legislators for weakening the public option and reducing insurance subsidies. Health Care for America Now's national campaign director, Richard Kirsh, declared Thursday:

The demands made by some Blue Dog Democrats will result in higher costs for families. First, they will weaken the public health insurance option's ability to drive down prices, and second, they will shrink the amount of assistance provided to middle-class families who buy health coverage.

We are confident that the House ultimately will pass legislation that includes a strong public health insurance option that lowers prices and provides financial assistance so that health insurance is truly affordable to all.

Yet some of the most astute observers on reform, such as The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn, and union lobbyists, see the compromise allowing passage of a bill out of Energy and Commerce as an important first step towards passing meaningful reform. Cohn observes:

Waxman has now pried away four Blue Dogs, enough--apparently--to get the bill through his committee. And he did so with what appear to be pretty small substantive concessions, like a slight reduction in subsidies and a modest reduction in the program's overall size. Most of the bill's core elements seem to be intact, including the public insurance option.

The big bone Waxman threw to the Blue Dogs--thank you very much, I'm here all week folks--was time. The Blue Dogs didn't want a full floor vote on reform until after the August recess, so Waxman got assurances from leadership that the vote will wait. This is a major setback only if you think there was a chance of an August vote actually happening. At this point, there really wasn't.

And why don't the Blue Dogs want to vote now? They want to wait and see what the Senate produces. If they have to take what they consider a hard vote--to raise somebody's taxes, to change the way Medicare pays for medical services, whatever--they don't want to stick their necks out any more than is absolutely necessary.

Similarly, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein doesn't see the limitations of the narrow, no-public-option "compromise" being shaped by Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, as dooming the prospects for a stronger plan emerging from both the Senate and the House:

This is who is in the room helping Baucus put together his bill. Olympia Snowe, Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, Jeff Bingaman and Kent Conrad. In a Senate of 60 Democrats and 40 Republicans, the health-care reform bill is being written by three centrist Democrats, one centrist Republicans, and two conservative Republicans. And until last week, Orrin Hatch was in the room, too.

This is not the Finance Committee's bill. This is the Max Baucus Committee's Bill. And there's not a liberal -- or even a Democrat traditionally associated with health-care policy -- working on it. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of Finance's health subcommittee, is not included in the negotiations. Nor is Ron Wyden, who has written the Healthy Americans Act. Chuck Schumer isn't in the room, nor is John Kerry, Debbie Stabenow or Maria Cantwell.

The question is whether Baucus's final product will matter. Rockefeller and the other Democrats on the committee have felt excluded from the negotiations and will want major changes before they can sign onto the final product. Then the Finance bill will have to be reconciled with the more liberal legislation built by the HELP Committee. Then it will have to go to the floor, where it will need the support of people like Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown just as much as it will need Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh. And then, if it passes those tests, it will have to be reconciled with the House's legislation.

But will the public or health insurance lobbyists win out? A solid majority of the public still favors the central elements of the President's health care plan, including the public health option. (Here's audio of a press conference call hosted by Americans United for Change). As the pollsters noted:

Anna Greenberg, Senior Vice President, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner: "When people are actually presented information about the President's plan, you get majorities of people in different polls saying that they favor the plan. And there has been no increase in any sense that the Republicans have a better alternative."

Clear Public Support for Specific Elements of Obama's Proposal for Health Insurance Reform

[Despite a downturn of support for reform legislation on Capitol Hill], " there is broad support for many of the core elements of the legislation currently before Congress. Nearly two-in-three (65%) favor requiring that all Americans have health insurance, with the government aiding those who cannot afford it. Nearly as many (61%) favor requiring employers who do not provide insurance to pay into a government health care fund. And there is broad support (79%) for prohibiting insurance companies from denying insurance to people with pre-existing conditions."

SOURCE: Pew Research Center, July 30, 2009

TIME Magazine Poll, 7/29/09: "On the details of the plan, respondents remained supportive of many of the rough outlines of the health-reform effort as originally described by President Obama. Sixty-three percent said they would support providing health-care coverage for all Americans, even if the government had to subsidize those who could not afford it. Fifty-six percent said they supported a "public health insurance option" to compete with private plans. Fifty-seven percent support raising taxes on those with annual incomes over $280,000 to pay for the plan. Eighty percent said they would support a bill that required insurance companies to offer coverage to anyone who applies, even those with pre-existing medical conditions."

Ultimately, though, as Jacki Schechner, a spokesperson for HCAN points out, the issue will be settled on the political battlefield: "Lawmakers should know that this is about people who need health care reform now, and no about kowtowing to the lobbyists in D.C. And they'll be reminded of that when they go back home."