AFL-CIO won't back healthcare reform without public option

The labor group's next president -- a key White House ally -- says the public option is "an absolute must"

Published September 1, 2009 6:08PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- The AFL-CIO, a key ally of the White House on healthcare reform, won't support legislation unless it includes a public insurance option.

"Let me be as clear as I can be -- it's an absolute must," Rich Trumka, the labor group's secretary-treasurer, and its next president, told reporters at a briefing Tuesday morning. "We won't support the bill if it doesn't have a public option."

That could add to the pressure on the White House and Senate Democrats to pull the plug on bipartisan talks aimed at bringing Republicans along with the plan. The GOP has more or less indicated opposition to just about everything Obama wants to do with healthcare, but especially the public option. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, the lead negotiator for his party, wrote a fundraising letter to his constituents this week that asks for their "immediate support in helping me defeat 'Obama-care.'" His office later clarified -- Grassley only meant he was trying to defeat the public option.

House leaders have already said they can't pass a bill there if the Senate strips the public option out, and most of the Senate Democratic caucus seems to support the public option, as well. Now add labor to the mix, and a clear picture is emerging: If the White House and Senate Democrats decide to jettison that part of the plan in order to win Republican votes, the political stumbling blocks to reform won't be cleared away. They'll just have moved from the right to the left. So the question may soon be whether it's worth continuing the negotiations, not what the negotiations will produce.

Congress comes back to Washington next week, and the bipartisan group will have less than two weeks to reach some sort of agreement before the Sept. 15 deadline Senate Democratic leaders have set.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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