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Dems Must Swing for the Fences or Lose

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Friday, January 29, 2010

Is there a patriot in the house? Is there anyone in Washington who regards governing as a means to accomplish anything other than win the sterile game of Democrat versus Republican? Every day, American soldiers risk their lives for their country, but people in Congress won't even risk their jobs to pass legislation essential to the nation's economic future.

I amend the above to exclude a few principled exceptions in both parties. One is Democrat Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania. As fellow Democrats in Washington ran for cover following the Republican win in Massachusetts (despite factors in the race unique to that state), Rendell said this about them and health care legislation:

"Listen, you got elected because you wanted to do something to change the quality of people's lives. Here we have a chance to do something historic, and if it means some of us are going to lose because of that, so be it. At least you will have lost your office fighting for something and accomplishing something."

Rendell urged Democrats to get the bill "as strong as they can" and put it through the Senate reconciliation process, which requires only 51 votes. Make the Republicans filibuster it, he said. "Call their bluff."

Yeah, let 'em filibuster. Let Republicans filibuster a bill that would close the "doughnut" hole in Medicare drug benefits and add Medicare coverage for preventive screening services. Let them kill heath care reform, without which the cost of employer-sponsored coverage for families would nearly double by 2019, and the number of Americans without coverage will balloon to 57 million. Let them support a system that in seven short years will leave $0 in the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund.

Democrats wouldn't have to say these things if they had been saying them all along. It was astounding to see President Obama and other Democrats stand by meekly as Republicans convinced the elderly that you can't cut projected Medicare spending without hurting their benefits. As noted, the legislation would actually improve benefits -- the money saved would come from ending a sweatheart deal with insurers. But they didn't have the courage to defend themselves, even with the truth.

Want to know how Republicans proposed saving money in Medicare? Under House House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans in the mid-'90s pushed for a voucher system: Medicare beneficiaries would have been given a set sum and told to buy their own coverage from private insurers. This was not great health care policy, because it would have put the elderly, especially the sickest, at the mercy of the insurance industry. But as a way to contain Medicare spending, the Republican plan was completely honest.

Will the Tea Party activists demanding lower taxes and lower deficits be willing to tackle the spiraling costs of Medicare? Medicare is the biggest out-of-control spending item in the federal budget. If they do, they'll deserve widespread respect, whether or not everyone agrees on the details.

This notion that health care and the economy are separate issues is politics at its worst. Health care costs are breaking the backs of employers and taxpayers -- and costing jobs by making American business uncompetitive in a global economy.

The Democratic moderates' fear of using reconciliation because it would anger the Republicans is mind-boggling. So instead they angered everyone by obtaining the 60 Senate votes through tawdry deal-making.

The Democrats' best hope of saving their skin this November is to swing for the fences with serious health care reform. They can pass a clean bill without having to sell their souls to a handful of senatorial shakedown artists.

If Republicans want to filibuster it, Democrats should welcome the spectacle.

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