Coburn, Vitter plan to ridicule public option backfires

When GOP senators wrote an amendment designed to embarrass Democrats, they got a little surprise

Published December 4, 2009 11:05PM (EST)

Sen. David Vitter, R-La. and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn
Sen. David Vitter, R-La. and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn

At the town halls this summer, people who came to protest against healthcare reform had a few different messages and complaints. One ended up turning into a refrain: If the public option is so great, the protesters would ask their senators and representatives, then why won't Congress be using it?

Now, as the Senate's debate over its version of reform legislation kicks into gear, two Republicans -- Sens. Tom Coburn and David Vitter -- have picked up that theme and are running with it. The two authored an amendment they want attached to the bill; it would require members of Congress to enroll in whatever version of the public option the final legislation creates, if it includes one.

Both Coburn and Vitter are vehement opponents of the public option, and they're hoping to prove themselves right by showing that no senator who's in his or her right mind would want their healthcare covered by it. They've gotten a surprise, though: Genuine support for their amendment from someone on the other side of the aisle -- and a proponent of the public option, at that -- Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Brown doesn't have any illusions about why Coburn and Vitter decided to introduce the amendment. "It's clear they just want to score political points. They hate the public option… they want to introduce [the amendment] and have it lose," the senator said in an interview with Salon on Friday.

But Brown's a strong supporter of the public option, and he's actually been taking a stand like this one since he was first elected to the House nearly 17 years ago, keeping a campaign promise to pay for his own coverage until Congress passed health insurance for everyone. For most of that time, he paid out of pocket; now, he's on his wife's plan, which costs him a fair amount than just using the coverage he's entitled to as a senator would. So he decided he wanted to co-sponsor Coburn and Vitter's amendment.

Senators are usually eager to collect co-sponsors for their bills and amendments, especially ones from the other party, for the simple reason that this helps the bill pass. It turns out their attitude is a bit different when the amendment in question is actually a political ploy, however. Brown's office contacted Coburn's about co-sponsorship of the amendment nine times last week, to no avail.

"We did get an email back saying they would check with their boss," Brown says, but that was the extent of the response.

So on Friday, Brown took matters into his own hands, going to the Senate floor and asking to be added as a co-sponsor to the amendment by unanimous consent. Since objecting under these circumstances is pretty much unheard of, Brown was finally added as a co-sponsor, along with fellow Democrats Chris Dodd and Barbara Mikulski.

Afterwards, Coburn spokesman John Hart claimed that his boss is "happy to have [Brown] on." He did note, however, that Brown had opposed a similar amendment when a reform bill was in the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Asked by Salon about his earlier vote, Brown said, "The one I voted against was to include all of the congressional staff. And the public option is an option. And one of the beauties of the public option is that people have a choice. I don't want to tell the people … in my office what their families should do."

By Emily Holleman

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

David Vitter Healthcare Reform Sherrod Brown D-ohio Tom Coburn