Lieberman Reprises Role As Health Care Spoiler

With reporting by Laura Dean

Sen. Joseph Lieberman affirmed on Tuesday what progressive health care reform advocates have long feared: At this juncture, he is likely to oppose a public option for health insurance coverage.

The Connecticut independent made his latest criticisms of a public option in an interview with the New Haven Independent. Weeks earlier, he told Bloomberg News that he didn't favor such an approach that might level the insurance industry market.

For Democrats, it was a shot to the gut -- the latest so-called centrist lawmaker from within their own party ranks speaking out against one of their most cherished aspects of health care reform. For all the angst Lieberman has caused within Democratic circles the past few years, he was supposed to be an ally on domestic issues.

But was it all that unexpected? Those close to the senator argue that he has always been skeptical of large government involvement in the health care industry and that he has always advocated for a more incremental approach to health care reform.

"He has been very consistent in trying to seek innovative approaches to try and get to universal health care coverage," said Dan Gerstein, a former aide. "When he was part of the '00 ticket, he supported Al Gore's step-by-step approach to getting health care reform, which at the time many progressives were very supportive of. This is not a debate about goals for him. This is a debate about means, both in terms of what makes sense on a policy basis and what is obtainable."

This certainly was the role Lieberman played during the last major reform effort. During the heart of the Clinton-era debate over the how to restructure the health care system, the then-Democrat was a constant thorn in the administration's side. As early as December 1993, he was calling the Clinton plan "too governmental, too regulatory and too costly." A supporter of a moderate bill championed by then Sen. John Breaux, Lieberman would add the descriptions "too big" and "too bureaucratic" to Clinton's approach several months later.

By the summer of 2004, Lieberman was attacking the notion that employers should be required to provide health care for their workers, arguing that there was "a universal consensus" against the idea. He pledged to try and strip the provision from Majority Leader George Mitchell's health care proposal. He also said he was willing to take a look at the plan put forth by the then Minority Leader, Sen. Bob Dole, which was structured largely after the approach then-candidate George H.W. Bush had promoted during the '92 campaign.

A month later, Lieberman stepped up his push for Breaux's proposal, which called for providing subsidies to lower-income families, demanded that insurance companies cover preexisting conditions and limited the tax benefits employers enjoyed for covering their workers (components that defined John McCain's 2008 approach).

"If this doesn't break the logjam," Lieberman said at the time, "nothing will."

Later that summer, the senator joined the moderate push to make sharp cuts in the prescription drug benefit included in the Clinton and Mitchell plans. In its place, Lieberman promoted means-testing -- a measure to determine which individuals could qualify for those benefits -- and setting a cap on spending for long-term care.

A critic of that idea, John Rother, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons, derided Lieberman for putting the possibility of achieving health care reform "in jeopardy" in 1994.

"This is more of a Band-Aid approach than real health reform," Rother said at the time.

Asked to assess Sen. Lieberman's approach to health care 15 years later, Rother said that not much had changed. "Based on his record, this is no surprise," he told the Huffinton Post. "His views haven't really changed that much... I think anyone who followed his career sees he is an Independent in many ways. I don't think you could assume support just because he is aligned with the Democratic caucus."

Nevertheless, there was an element of the Democratic party that did hope that time and circumstance might have tempered Lieberman's position on the issue. Certainly, when Democrats accepted the senator back into their ranks after he campaigned publicly against President Barack Obama, the condition seemed to be that he would support Obama on key legislative issues.

Lieberman's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lieberman, who over the course of his career has taken more than $1 million from health professionals and insurance companies, as well as more than $600,000 from pharmaceutical and health product companies and $250,000 from health services and HMOs, could still come on board. He started off his interview with the New Haven Independent by saying he was "skeptical" of the public option -- not fully opposed -- because he feared "the public is going to end up paying for it."

The progressive community is doing what it can to change his mind.

"We expect Sen. Lieberman to support President Obama's health care plan, including offering the choice of a new public health insurance option to lower costs and keep the insurance companies honest," Jacki Schechner, National Communications Director for Health Care for America Now. "As for Sen. Lieberman's concerns, the president just explained in today's Town Hall that his plans for reform will be deficit neutral, and we'll pay for reform by reallocating wasted money already in the system and by cutting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2 percent."

UPDATE: Lieberman spokesman Marshall Wittmann writes on with the following comment, early Thursday morning.

Contrary to the suggestion that Senator Lieberman is a "health care spoiler," the opposite is true because Senator Lieberman is working hard to build a coalition to pass a health care reform bill. Although he does not support a public option that would be cost prohibitive and would make it very unlikely to pass a bill, he strongly supports health care reform that expands access, lowers costs and increases quality of care.

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