Obama, Reid show some spine on health care

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The endless cave-ins on federal health care reform may be ending. President Obama today essentially told his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to quit weakening his position on giving Americans an option to the failed private health insurance market. And Sen. Harry Reid told the head of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus, to quit bowing to his GOP counterpart, according to the Washington tip sheet Roll Call (subscription, but excerpts below.)

Here’s the early report from the New York Times on Obama and Emanuel:

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published today, Rahm Emanuel,
the White House chief of staff, suggested the administration is open to
negotiations on one of President Obama’s central goals for a health
care bill: a government-sponsored insurance plan – a “public option,”
in Washington argot – that would compete with the private sector.

“The goal is to have a means and a mechanism to keep the private
insurers honest. The goal is non-negotiable; the path is” negotiable,
the newspaper quoted Mr. Emanuel as saying.

But Mr. Emanuel did not get the last word. Within hours, the chief
of staff was big-footed – all the way from Moscow — by his boss, Mr.
Obama, who is in Russia prior to the meeting of the “Group of Eight”
economic powers. The White House issued an official statement declaring
that Mr. Obama remains committed to the public option.

Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada told Baucus, according to Democratic sources, that he was going to lose more Democratic votes than he could possibly gain from the Republican side if he left out a public option and also taxed employers on the health benefits they provide employees.

From Roll Call:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday ordered
Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to drop a proposal to tax health
benefits and stop chasing Republican votes on a massive health care
reform bill.

Reid, whose leadership is considered crucial if
President Barack Obama is to deliver on his promise of enacting health
care reform this year, offered the directive to Baucus through an
intermediary after consulting with Senate Democratic leaders during
Tuesday morning’s regularly scheduled leadership meeting. Baucus was
meeting with Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) Tuesday
afternoon to relay the information.

According to Democratic
sources, Reid told Baucus that taxing health benefits and failing to
include a strong government-run insurance option of some sort in his
bill would cost 10 to 15 Democratic votes; Reid told Baucus it wasn’t
worth securing the support of Grassley and at best a few additional

It’s been clear since the beginning that health insurance companies would never agree to a deal that included a government competitor. Yet a competitor to insurers’ utter failure is the only path that can hold down costs while guaranteeing decent health care. Bipartisanship doesn’t have to mean crumbling to a corporate demand, and opponents were simply turning Baucus into their tool.

Baucus also has his own problems, including a history of big contributions from the health insurance industry.

Obama’s line in the sand has been a long time coming. But it’s a good sign that he sent a message all the way from Moscow that the capitulation has to end.

Consumer Watchdog
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