News & Politics

Rep. Grayson: Obama Needs to Push Health Care In Earnest -- With a Public Option

The health care battle between Republicans and Democrats has looked like a fight 'between the crazies and the lazies,' Grayson said. Now it's time to get serious.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has a message for Senate Democrats: Pass health care with a public option -- and pass it quickly. On Wednesday, Grayson joined Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Jim Dean of Democracy for America in delivering some 225,000 petitions to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that demand the Senate leadership use a procedure it has avoided so far in the health care fight in order to pass a bill that contains a public health insurance option. CREDO Action also co-sponsored the petition.

So far in the battle for health care reform, Senate proponents have found themselves hemmed in by the Republicans' profligate use of the filibuster, which allows the minority to hold up a vote on any measure until opponents can muster 60 votes to bring a bill to the floor. In addition, Senate Democrats just lost a seat in the Massachusetts special election for the seat vacated by the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. (The seat was won by Republican Scott Brown, with a lot of help from the Tea Party crowd.) 

But a procedure called reconciliation allows measures that pertain to the budget to pass on a simple majority of 51 votes. That's how President Bush passed his tax cuts for the wealthy -- through the reconciliation process. Now some House Democrats, including Grayson, Jared Polis of Colorado and Chellie Pingree of Maine are calling on their Senate colleagues to pull out the stops to add a public option to the Senate health care reform bill. (Pingree and Polis have penned a letter to that effect, in which they are urging other members to add their signatures.)

Grayson burst into the health care debate with a vengeance last year when he defined the Republican health care plan as: "If you get sick, die quickly." Soon, he was a darling of progressives, bringing his combative style to a string of appearances on cable news shows.

Today, AlterNet caught up with the congressman before today's petition-delivery event outside a Senate office building. If the Senate was barely able to negotiate a bill when Democrats arguably had 60 votes, could a bill with a public option really pass now that the Dems have only a 59-vote majority?

"There's no question; it's clear that something can happen," Grayson told AlterNet. "This is a democracy, and ultimately in a democracy, the majority rules. We didn't have a 60-vote majority until just a couple of months ago, and now people are frustrated because we don't have it anymore. Well, historically, it's an anomaly -- it's happened only 14 years out of 222, and somehow we managed to preserve the union, and survive and pass laws now and then as needed. And there's no reason why we can't do it again here."

Yet efforts by President Obama to push Congress to include a public option in the Senate bill that passed on Christmas Eve were tepid at best, and the Senate bill consequently omitted a public insurance plan. Could the Senate possibly pass a public option through reconciliation without a strong push from the White House?

"We'll see," Grayson said. "I think that the White House should make a strong effort, regardless of whether it's required or not, because this is very important to the lives of so many Americans."

Grayson embraced the idea of resorting to the reconciliation process, which was avoided in the last go-round because it was seen as unnecessarily provocative by the White House.

"Why not?" Grayson asked. "If it's good enough for tax cuts for the rich, it's good enough for health care for all."

Using reconciliation to fix the Senate health care bill also opens up the possibility of the return of another option: a buy-in plan for people under the age of 65 who want to use Medicare as their health care plan. Grayson thinks that's possible.

"That appears to have the support of most of the Senate also -- and also most of the country," he said. "You ask people, do you support opening up Medicare to other people who can afford to pay for it, and the answer overwhelmingly is yes."

Asked if he would vote for a bill that contains the anti-choice Stupak Amendment, Grayson said, "I don't think it's going to come to that; the leadership's already said they're going to change the language." But if the anti-abortion language in the Senate bill is left to stand, that's not much better. Grayson didn't think it would. "I think there's more discussion going on about that subject," he said.

A young man with a Flip video camera piped up. "You had an argument with Chris Matthews the other day," he said from behind his hand-held device. "He said you didn't understand parliamentary tactics. Do you have anything to say to Chris Matthews?"

"You know, listen, I'm a congressman, and he's someone who reads words from a teleprompter," Grayson replied. "I think between the two of us, I probably have a better grasp of what goes on in Congress than he does."

Hmm. Grayson may not be getting that next call to appear on MSNBC's "Hardball." (In fairness to Matthews, he did do his time as a congressional aide to the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill.)

The young man, who identified himself only as Kyle, asked if Grayson expected any Repubican support for the public option.

Grayson laughed.

"Who cares? Who cares if it gets any? What difference does it make?" he asked. "That's not what matters. What matters is that people in this country have health care when they need it."

But, we wondered, with Obama emphasizing jobs and a spending freeze in the State of the Union address, will it be possible to keep health care on the front burner?

"Yes," Grayson said. "I think with 44,000 Americans dying every year for lack of health care, it will remain on the burner. Yes. But is there a burner in front of the front burner? Because that's where it ought to be."

Grayson declined comment on Obama's proposed spending freeze, saying he was at the Senate event to talk about health care.

Adam Green, founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee stepped up to the microphone, saying that the signers of the petitions were "asking Sen. Harry Reid to do the will of the public, and to pass the public health insurance option through reconciliation."

"For months the Senate...has watered down and watered down health care reform," Green continued. "House Democrats and progressives and voters across the country have been asked to just swallow it. While there have been no consequences for a long time, but Massachusetts was a big wake-up call....People want more change, bolder change, more populism -- and taking on corporate power on behalf of regular, everyday people. And the public option is that in this health care fight. For the first time ever, reconciliation is seriously on the table, and it would be mind-numbing if the Senate did not take that opportunity to do the will of the people and pass the public health insurance option."

While it may seem counterintuitive that Massachusetts voters would elect Brown, a Republican, despite their support of health care reform with a public option, that's exactly what PCCC's polling shows. Among Massachusetts voters who pulled the lever for Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate election last week, some 18 percent had voted for Obama in 2008. Of those voters, 82 percent said they supported the public option, according to the survey, which was conducted by Research 2000. Among Obama voters who didn't bother to vote in the special election, 86 percent said they favored a public option. In essence, it seems that Scott Brown's victory was due in part to the disgust of Obama voters with the health care reform process so far.

Jim Dean, who leads Democracy for America, said his activists were there to "remind the members of the Senate that this is a consumer issue. Americans want choices, and that they want bold leadership that will give them those choices."

"We have to deliver," Grayson told the gathering. "We can't let people around this country think that the only choices between the political parties are the crazies and lazies."

With that, Grayson, Dean and Green, along with a handful of activists, each picked up a box of petitions and headed for Harry Reid's office.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.
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