Baucus earns his healthcare industry funding

The Montana senator rejects the public option while admitting it would "hold insurance companies' feet to the fire"

Published September 29, 2009 10:30PM (EDT)

On "The Ed Show" Monday night I said Montana Sen. Max Baucus had to decide whether he represented Montana or the insurance industry. Tuesday he made his choice, voting against both public option amendments to the healthcare reform bill in the Senate Finance Committee.

All the Democrats who voted against the public option should be ashamed, but Baucus most of all. The Senate Finance Committee chair's reasoning was bizarre. According to Salon's Mike Madden, whose coverage today was terrific, Baucus admitted "the public option would help hold insurance companies' feet to the fire," then added, "But my first job is to get this bill across the finish line."

No, Sen. Baucus. Your first job is voting for what will work to extend healthcare to more Americans and reduce costs. (And Harry Reid, you might want to have a little talk with your boy from Montana, since it's my understanding the Senate majority leader is in charge of getting the bill across the finish line.)

So let's get this straight: Baucus admits the public option would "hold insurance companies' feet to the fire," but he voted against it? Is there any clearer evidence that Baucus is in the pocket of the health insurance industry? Between 2003 and 2008, according to the Washington Post, Baucus took $3 million from the health and insurance sectors, 20 percent of his total contributions. And he collected half of that money in just the last two years, as the committee he chaired began holding hearings on healthcare reform.

It's possible Democrats can't muster the votes, or the procedural savvy, to pass a bill with a public option, even though a majority of senators, and a decisive majority in the House, support it. But we don't know that yet. It's not Baucus' role to prejudge what can or can't ultimately prevail, when the real action is probably going to come in the conference committee that reconciles what the more liberal House passes with what the Senate decides on. In the meantime, the Obama administration will have to leave the political sidelines and decide which arms to twist: Democrats shilling for the insurance industry, or the progressives who've pledged not to vote for a bill without a public option. There's plenty of political drama yet to come, Max. You didn't decide the bill's outcome with your self-contradictory vote today.

The harder I struggled to understand Baucus' nonsensical self-defense, only one meaning seemed possible: Baucus didn't vote against the public option despite the fact that it would "hold insurance companies' feet to the fire," but because it would. His insurance industry contributors got their money's worth today, but the people of Montana did not. Montana is one of the states with the least health-insurance competition -- 75 percent of its residents are covered by Blue Cross-Blue Shield, according to a 2007 American Medical Association report.

The public option isn't dead, no matter how hard Baucus or Democratic disappointments Blanche Lincoln and Kent Conrad fought to kill it on Tuesday. Not coincidentally, the Institute for Southern Studies reports that Conrad's North Dakota and Lincoln's Arkansas are, like Montana, among the worst states for insurance-company concentration, with 89 percent of North Dakotans and 75 percent of Arkansans covered, again, by Blue Cross-Blue Shield. These are the states where competition from the public option is needed the most.

After the Senate Finance Committee voted, the White House issued a statement saying President Obama still believes in the public option. Sen. Tom Harkin told Bill Press on Tuesday that the public option can pass the Senate "by a comfortable margin." I'm not sure that's entirely true, but Harkin is right to push Reid to include the option in the Senate's version of the bill, and force opponents to muster the votes to strip it out. How would Baucus vote, when a majority of Senate Democrats are sure to reject such a move? There's still time for Baucus to serve his constituents, not the insurance industry, but it's a shame he didn't do so on Tuesday. 

By Joan Walsh

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