Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The waiting game Congress is making progress. We think.

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know, we know: Last week, Olympia Snowe made history by being the only Republican in 2009 to vote for any sort of healthcare reform, even in committee-level draft language far from its final form. And after she made her “when history calls, history calls” remark, fellow non-nutjob Republican senator Susan Collins decided she might be hearing things as well.

Snowe, of course, voted for the healthcare-reform bill being discussed in the Senate Finance Committee, parting ranks with her fellow Republicans in that group, and defying those GOPers who threatened to deny her a senior post on the Senate Commerce Committee if she approved of the plan. The Finance Committee’s bill, the last of five proposals to make it through a congressional committee, has been roundly criticized by conservatives as being too expensive, by liberals as not making care affordable (and giving hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to insurance companies), and even by Snowe herself for being “far from” what she wants to see in a reform package.

Nevertheless, she has been lauded around the country for the move, which definitely put her in the “independent Republican” category — if it didn’t strike “Republican” from her affiliation entirely.
And she has left herself more than enough wiggle room for voting for or against future revised proposals, saying in the committee meeting, “My vote today is my vote today. It doesn’t forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.”

Snowe has repeatedly objected to plans that include at their outset a “public option,” most frequently envisioned as a Medicare-like program for people of all ages, to compete with insurance companies’ plans. Public-option proponents say it is the best way to bring down insurance rates and improve coverage and service.

But she is not ruling such a plan out entirely; she has advocated for a “trigger,” in which a public option would be created if certain affordability and coverage targets were not met through the private market alone. (She told Charlie Rose last week that she wants to see what the market does with the restrictions and reforms the bill would put in place first.)

But she also made a clear declaration of principle: “The status-quo approach has produced one glaring common denominator, that is that we have a problem that is growing worse, not better,” she said in the meeting.

Collins may have heard the call, too, signaling in interviews after the Finance Committee’s vote that she too might be open to some form of healthcare reform. However, a statement by her office was almost completely critical of the Finance Committee’s bill, saying it stifles job creation and does little to control costs; it also completely dismissed the Senate Health Committee’s bill and the three House bills that need to be combined. And Collins has repeatedly opposed any form of public option.

If Collins is willing to go along with some version of reform, that might give the Democrats enough votes in the Senate to get something passed, but certain terms will likely be dictated by Snowe, who is the only Republican still at the negotiating table. While congressional Democrats spent the weekend saying they weren’t going to “cater” to her needs in drafting the final bill, Snowe is in a powerful position, and the actual picture that develops as the five committees try to combine their divergent bills (the other four do include a public option) will definitely have a great deal to do with her.

But until there is a bill passed — and anything that passes will take years to have full effect — we are still waiting.