Jay Rockefeller on the Public Option: “I Will Not Relent”
Jay Rockefeller has waited a long time for this moment. . . . He’s  a longtime advocate of health care for children and the poor — and, as Congress moves toward its moment of truth on health care, perhaps the most earnest, dogged Senate champion of a nationwide public health insurance plan to compete with private insurance companies.
“I will not relent on that. That’s the only way to go,” Rockefeller told me in an interview. “There’s got to be a safe harbor.”
President Obama often says a public option is needed to drive down costs and keep insurance companies honest. To Rockefeller, it’s both more basic and more vital: The federal government is the only institution people can count on in times of need.
Rockefeller Not Inclined To Support Reconciliation For The Public Plan
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) threw a wrench into Democratic efforts to get a public option passed through reconciliation, saying that he thought the maneuver was overly partisan and that he was inclined to oppose it. . .
“I don’t think the timing of it is very good,” the West Virginia Democrat said on Monday. “I’m probably not going to vote for that” . . . In making his sentiment known, Rockefeller becomes perhaps the most unexpected skeptic of the public-option-via-reconciliation route. The Senator was a huge booster of a government run insurance option during the legislation drafting process this past year.
In other words, Rockefeller was willing to be a righteous champion for the public option as long as it had no chance of passing (sadly, we just can’t do it, because although it has 50 votes in favor, it doesn’t have 60). But now that Democrats are strongly considering the reconciliation process — which will allow passage with only 50 rather than 60 votes and thus enable them to enact a public option — Rockefeller is suddenly “inclined to oppose it” because he doesn’t “think the timing of it is very good” and it’s “too partisan.” What strange excuses for someone to make with regard to a provision that he claimed, a mere five months ago (when he knew it couldn’t pass), was such a moral and policy imperative that he “would not relent” in ensuring its enactment.
The Obama White House did the same thing. As I wrote back in August, the evidence was clear that while the President was publicly claiming that he supported the public option, the White House, in private, was doing everything possible to ensure its exclusion from the final bill (in order not to alienate the health insurance industry by providing competition for it). Yesterday, Obama — while having his aides signal that they would use reconciliation if necessary — finally unveiled his first-ever health care plan as President, and guess what it did not include? The public option, which he spent all year insisting that he favored oh-so-much but sadly could not get enacted: Gosh, I really want the public option, but we just don’t have 60 votes for it; what can I do?. As I documented in my contribution to the NYT forum yesterday, now that there’s a 50-vote mechanism to pass it, his own proposed bill suddenly excludes it.
This is what the Democratic Party does; it’s who they are. They’re willing to feign support for anything their voters want just as long as there’s no chance that they can pass it. They won control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections by pretending they wanted to compel an end to the Iraq War and Bush surveillance and interrogation abuses because they knew they would not actually do so; and indeed, once they were given the majority, the Democratic-controlled Congress continued to fund the war without conditions, to legalize Bush’s eavesdropping program, and to do nothing to stop Bush’s habeas and interrogation abuses (“Gosh, what can we do? We just don’t have 60 votes).
Progressives: Hey, great! Now that you’re going to pass the bill through reconciliation after all, you can include the public option that both you and we love, because you only need 50 votes, and you’ve said all year you have that!
Democrats/WH: No. We don’t have 50 votes for that (look at Jay Rockefeller). Besides, it’s not the right time for the public option. The public option only polls at 65%, so it might make our health care bill — which polls at 35% — unpopular. Also, the public option and reconciliation are too partisan, so we’re going to go ahead and pass our industry-approved bill instead . . . on a strict party line vote.
This is why, although I basically agree with filibuster reform advocates, I am extremely skeptical that it would change much, because Democrats would then just concoct ways to lack 50 votes rather than 60 votes — just like they did here. Ezra Klein, who is generally quite supportive of the White House perspective, reported last week on something rather amazing: Democratic Senators found themselves in a bind, because they pretended all year to vigorously support the public option but had the 60-vote excuse for not enacting it. But now that Democrats will likely use the 50-vote reconciliation process, how could they (and the White House) possibly justify not including the public option? So what did they do? They pretended in public to “demand” that the public option be included via reconciliation with a letter that many of them signed (and thus placate their base: see, we really are for it!), while conspiring in private with the White House (which expressed ”sharp resistance” to the public option) to make sure it wouldn’t really happen.
The only thing I wonder about is whether Washington Democrats are baffled about the extreme “enthusiasm gap” between Democratic and Republican voters, which very well could cause them to lose control of Congress this year. By “enthusiasm gap,” it is meant that the very people who worked so hard in 2006 and 2008 to ensure that Democrats became empowered are now indifferent — apathetic — about whether they keep it. Even as crazed and extremist as the GOP is, is it remotely possible that the Democratic establishment fails to understand not only why this “enthusiasm gap” exists, but also why it’s completely justifiable?
UPDATE: I didn’t intend to make an argument here one way or the other about the desirability of the public option, but was merely highlighting the game Democrats play in general. But for those interested in that question, it has always seemed clear to me that — no matter where one falls on the ideological spectrum (including conservatives and libertarians) — once the Government is going to mandate that all citizens purchase health insurance, it is preferable to provide an option to purchase a public plan rather than forcing everyone to buy from the private health insurance industry. On both policy and political grounds, a public-option-free mandate seems distastrous for Democrats.
Libertarian/conservative GOP Rep. John Shaddeg explained this point perfectly in this January interview with Mike Stark: