House progressives prepare to fight Senate

The Congressional Progressive Caucus says a conference committee on healthcare reform is a must

By Mike Madden
December 11, 2009 3:11AM (UTC)
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Selling the Senate's compromise on healthcare reform to progressives in the Senate is going to be hard enough. Selling it to progressives in the House may be downright impossible.

Which is why Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is warning Democratic leaders not to even try, despite rumors that the House may just take up whatever the Senate passes in an attempt to cut the painstaking legislative process short. "If we're just voting on the Senate bill, then obviously much of what we fought for [in the House]... will disappear," Grijalva told Salon Thursday afternoon. "That's going to make it very difficult for many of us to support what is in the Senate [bill] right now. If we were being asked to vote on what I've heard, I couldn't support it."


What the Senate bill will wind up looking like is the subject of a lot of speculation and not much actual informed discussion on Capitol Hill and around Washington right now. Senate leaders are trying to keep the specifics of the compromise plan they've got under wraps, in part so the Congressional Budget Office doesn't publicize its cost estimates for different versions of the compromise until Democrats have a chance to see the estimates and adjust the plans accordingly. Which means Grijalva is, like many of his colleagues in the Senate as well as the House, reacting to only the broad outlines of a plan.

Still, there are enough differences between the House bill and what the Senate has already essentially agreed to that liberals are troubled. Ignore the thorniest question, what to do with the public option; that still leaves a slew of other issues, from the Senate's plan to tax expensive healthcare benefits to pay for expanding coverage to the House's more generous expansion of Medicaid eligibility to poor people.

The public option, though, tops the list. Grijalva said he didn't think much of the reported deal to remove it from the Senate bill, though he doesn't mind the plan to let uninsured people between the ages of 55 and 64 buy into Medicare -- as long as their premiums are affordable and the move doesn't jeopardize the system's already precarious finances. If the Senate is hung up on the name, though, progressives don't care what a public plan is called. "Call it what you want to call it," he said. "If it provides that coverage and that intent, it has some public oversight and owernship to it, then we're in favor."


But even though the details aren't set yet, progressives are preparing to defend their goals. Liberal Democrats have been meeting frequently with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (though Grijalva says they don't hear from the White House much), and they'll keep the pressure on. "People are reluctant, at this point, to say 'I'm going to draw this line in the sand and say if this isn't in, then I'm out,' because there's no details," Grijalva said. "We keep hearing, 'Wait till it gets fleshed out.' You need to plan for the worst-case scenario here; given past performance by the Senate, you gotta plan on the worst-case scenario."

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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