As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Not So Fast, Mad Max

Jay Rockefeller is actually the chair of the health subcommittee in the Senate Finance Committee. Any "Gang of Six," or really any legislation on the Committee, should at least have his input, if not his controlling hand. Yet Max Baucus froze him out of the legislation in favor of Republicans who will never sign on to the final version and worthless schemes like the Conrad co-op proposal (which is just a thin ploy to get Blue Cross of North Dakota, which controls 90% of the market in Conrad's state, the "co-op" label so it can access federal start-up funds). Rockefeller may have the last laugh when the bill moves into the full committee.

U.S. Senator John Rockefeller, a Finance Committee member and a strong backer of a government-run insurance option, said on Tuesday he will not support the panel's healthcare bill in its present form.

Rockefeller told reporters he was unhappy with the lack of a government-run "public" insurance option in the bill, which is scheduled to be made public on Wednesday, and had problems with some of its changes in children's health insurance and Medicaid, or healthcare for the poor.

In particular, Rockefeller wants a public insurance option instead of the weak co-ops, better affordability provisions so working people can actually use the bill, and changes to the way that Baucuscare deals with the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.

Rockefeller specifically said "There is no way in its present form that I will vote for it... unless it changes during the amendment process by vast amounts." Now, getting amendments through may not be an easy task. Each Rockefeller amendment in that committee would have to get the votes of all the Democrats plus at least a couple Republicans, if Baucus and Conrad hold firm on them. Considering that 10 of the 13 Democrats on the panel were completely shut out of the process during the Gang of Six talks, I'd expect a lot of support for what Rockefeller wants to do, but Baucus and Conrad can basically nullify anything meaningful on their own, should they want to.

Still, Rockefeller's advocacy is important because it sets the tone for Democrats with the full Senate, where votes like his will be needed. Jon Cohn explains.

A little over a month ago, right before the August recess, I spoke with Rockefeller at some length. And he was clearly wrestling with how to position himself.

No living senator has done as much to promote health reform as he has. It's the cause of his life and, for the first time, the goal is within reach. He admitted that voting against a package, even a flawed one, was difficult to imagine.

But Rockefeller also made clear his frustration with the compromises Baucus was making, whether it was replacing the public plan with a co-op or gradually reducing the subsidies to help people pay for insurance. He was particularly incensed about the changes to Medicaid and CHIP, programs to which he's devoted much of his time--and on which many West Virginians rely.

At the time, it seemed like Rockefeller was still on board, if only to help get a bill out of the Finance Committee and onto the Senate floor. But you got the feeling--well, I got the feeling--that he was near the breaking point.

Sometime since that interview, clearly, he's hit it.

Every vote is precious in the Senate, given that votes on the Republican side other than Olympia Snowe and maybe Susan Collins will not be forthcoming. Harry Reid has laid down the marker that anything less than 60 votes will lead him to go through the reconciliation process (and I don't think Reid's low poll numbers in Nevada will be much of a factor - the consequences of doing nothing on health care would be far graver for him). Therefore everyone in the Democratic caucus, essentially, represents an interest group to be satisfied. Rockefeller is standing up and saying that he's perfectly willing to vote against something that doesn't fulfill the promise of health care reform as he sees it. Bernie Sanders probably feels the same way. Maybe Barbara Boxer does. Or others. Max Baucus and his cronies will have to wrestle with that.

...Incidentally, the fact that we could have a new interim Senator from Massachusetts as soon as this week makes things even more interesting.

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