The risk to reform

THE RISK TO REFORM…. On CNN yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California commented on the state of the debate over health care reform: “To be candid with you, I don’t know that [President Obama] has the votes right now.” She added, “I think there’s a lot of concern in the Democratic caucus.”

In context, Feinstein wasn’t exactly lamenting the current state of affairs. In other words, she wasn’t suggesting, “There’s a lot of concern among Democrats, but I hope to convince them that reform efforts are sound and necessary.” Rather, Feinstein made it sound as if she’s discouraged by the entire initiative.

Paul Krugman made it clear in his column today that it’s senators like Feinstein who will either deliver on reform or kill it. Republican lawmakers, by and large, do not even want to play a productive role in the process. Progressive Democratic lawmakers are moving forward with a strong plan, which includes a public health insurance option that competes with private insurers and keeps costs down. And then, there are the “centrists.”

The real risk is that health care reform will be undermined by “centrist” Democratic senators who either prevent the passage of a bill or insist on watering down key elements of reform. I use scare quotes around “centrist,” by the way, because if the center means the position held by most Americans, the self-proclaimed centrists are in fact way out in right field.

What the balking Democrats seem most determined to do is to kill the public option, either by eliminating it or by carrying out a bait-and-switch, replacing a true public option with something meaningless. For the record, neither regional health cooperatives nor state-level public plans, both of which have been proposed as alternatives, would have the financial stability and bargaining power needed to bring down health care costs.

Whatever may be motivating these Democrats, they don’t seem able to explain their reasons in public.

Thus Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska initially declared that the public option — which, remember, has overwhelming popular support — was a “deal-breaker.” Why? Because he didn’t think private insurers could compete: “At the end of the day, the public plan wins the day.” Um, isn’t the purpose of health care reform to protect American citizens, not insurance companies?

Over the weekend, we learned that the idea of a public option enjoys 72% support — including 50% of Republicans — in the latest NYT poll. It followed an NBC/WSJ poll that showed 76% of Americans believing that it’s important to “give people a choice of both a public plan administered by the federal government and a private plan for their health insurance.” What’s more, a D.C. policy think tank conducted a poll, financed in part by previous opponents of health care reform, which found 83% of Americans favor a public plan.

The president is ready. The House is ready. The public is ready. The times demand that Senate Democratic “centrists” step up. Will they answer the call?