The White House put up its $950 bln health reform plan (2/22), four days before it was scheduled to meet with Democratic and Republican leaders in a last attempt to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise.

The plan uses the Senate bill as a base to bridge differences between the House and Senate versions of health reform, making changes the administration thinks can pass through the budget reconciliation process, if necessary. Among the changes from the Senate bill:

• More subsidies go to the working poor, up to 400% of the poverty level, and reduces the maximum amount of income paid out of pocket as an insurance premium, from 9.8% to 9.5%.

• Closes the “donut hole,” where Medicare Part D subscribers pay for prescription drugs above a certain amount.

• $11 bln for community health centers, which would offer universal coverage to low-income residents, is up from $10 bln in the Senate bill.

• The threshold for the excise tax on the most expensive “Cadillac” health plans increases to $27,500, starting in 2018, and indexes the amounts for inflation, as the deal the White House reached with labor unions in January is extended to everyone.

• It improves consumer protections and creates a new Health Insurance Rate Authority to review unreasonable rate increases and unfair practices.

The plan also eliminates the special Medicaid financing to benefit Nebraska, making the additional federal financing available to all states for the expansion of Medicaid. The White House says the plan will cut the deficit by $100 bln over 10 years, just like the Senate bill, mainly through cuts to Medicare Advantage, which is administered by private health insurance companies, an increase in the Medicare payroll tax on high-income individuals to cover investment income as well as wages, and an increase in assessments on the pharmaceutical industry.

Among GOP positions that have been incorporated into the Senate health bill: It allows the establishment of interstate compacts to allow insurance companies to sell insurance across state lines. It allows individuals, small businesses and trade associations to get insurance from exchange pools, rather than being treated as individuals. It allows states to create their own innovative reforms if they can do it better and cheaper than the federal plan. The bill encourages states to develop new ways to compensate injured patients for malpractice. One of the most objectionable parts of Obama’s health care plan, the excise tax on expensive health plans, was lifted from Republican suggestions over the past year. (In his presidential campaign, John McCain wanted to repeal the tax break for employer-provided insurance, which would have been much worse for workers and small businesses.)

The White House plan does not include a public option.

As we went to press, 36 Democratic senators have said they are open to using the budget reconciliation bill to finish health reform and 25 have signed a letter circulated by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) supporting establishment of a public option through budget reconciliation while another half dozen have indicated they support a public option but haven’t signed the letter.

The public option supporters include Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Diane Feinstein (Calif.); Michael Bennett (Colo.), Daniel Inouye (HI), Roland Burris (Ill.), John Kerry (Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Al Franken (Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Chuck Schumer (NY), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Jack Reed (RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Tim Johnson (SD), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he expects he will sign the letter.

Listed as maybes but who have said they support a public option include Ben Cardin (Md.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Harry Reid (Nev.). Among the undecided were Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Herb Kohl (Wis.)

Robert Reich noted at RobertReich.org (2/21) that if Senate Dems can’t come up with 51 votes for the health-care reforms they enacted weeks ago “they give new definition to the term ‘spineless.’” He added, “If Obama can’t get 51 Senate votes out of 58 or 59 Dems and independents, he definitely won’t be abel to get 51 Senate votes after November.”

SOMETIMES SENATE POPULISTS. Who will vote populist in the Senate? The potential base starts with the 11 Dems and an independent socialist who voted against Fed Chairman Bernanke’s confirmation (1/28), including Mark Begich (Alaska), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Russ Feingold (Wis.), Al Franken (Minn.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Ted Kaufman (Del.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Then add those 19 Dems who didn’t vote against Bernanke but voted againt Big Pharma for the amendment to the health reform bill that would have allowed reimportation of cheap prescription drugs from Canada. It failed (12/15/09) because it only got a 51-48 majority and it needed a 60-vote supermajority. They included Michael Bennett (Colo.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) Mark Pryor (Ark.), Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.).

Then add those 22 Dems who didn’t vote against Bernanke and didn’t vote for the drug reimportation amendment but voted against the banks for the mortgage cramdown amendment that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to change the terms of home mortgages (4/20/09). It failed 45-51. Populists that day included Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Birch Bayh (Ind.), Roland Burris (Ill.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Bob Casey (Pa.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), John Kerry (Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.), Patty Murray (Wash.), Jack Reed (R.I.), Harry Reid (Nev.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Mark Udall (Colo), and Mark Warner (Va.).

So 51 Democratic senators and two indies have supported controversial populist positions on at least one key vote in the past year. We know a few of them are flukes who can’t be counted on when their vote actually would make a difference, but it gives a base to work with, and the foregoing list doesn’t include Dems Max Baucus (Mont.), Robert Byrd (W.V.), Tom Carper (Del.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Jay Rockefeller (W.V.) and Jon Tester (Mont.). Of that crew, at least Carper is open to health care reconciliation and the public option.

Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com wrote (2/23) that he sees the musical chairs on the public option as a case of “Villain Rotation,” where a handful of Democratic senators announce that they will be the ones who will deviate from the ostensible party position and impede success. But the Villain constantly shifts, “so the Party itself can claim it supports these measures while an always-changing handful of their members invariably prevent it. One minute, it’s Jay Rockefeller as the Prime Villain leading the way in protecting Bush surveillance programs and demanding telecom immunity [in 2007]; the next minute, it’s Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Schumer joining hands and ‘breaking with their party’ to ensure Michael Mukasey’s confirmation as attorney general [in 2007]; then it’s Big Bad Joe Lieberman single-handedly blocking Medicare expansion [last December]; then it’s Blanche Lincoln and Jim Webb joining with Lindsey Graham to support the de-funding of civilian trials for Terrorists [2/2]; and now that they can’t blame Lieberman or Ben Nelson any longer on health care (since they don’t need 60 votes), Jay Rockefeller voluntarily returns to the Villain Role, stepping up to put an end to the pretend-movement among Senate Democrats to enact the public option via reconciliation.”

KEY STATES SUPPORT PUBLIC OPTION. A poll conducted for three progressive groups found that a public health insurance option is much more popular than the Senate bill that requires people to buy their insurance from private companies. The poll, conducted by Research 2000 for Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and Credo Action, which are trying to get Congress to make a public health option part of a budget reconciliation bill, found:

• In Nevada, only 34% support the Senate bill, while 56% support the public option.

• In Illinois, only 37% support the Senate bill, while 68% support the public option.

• In Washington State, 38% support the Senate bill, 65% support the public option.

• In Missouri, only 33% support the Senate bill, while 57% support the public option.

• In Virginia, only 36% support the Senate bill, while 61% support the public option.

• In Iowa, only 35% support the Senate bill, while 62% support the public option.

• In Minnesota, only 35% support the Senate bill, while 62% support the public option.

• In Colorado, only 32% support the Senate bill, while 58% support the public option.

PEOPLE DON’T LIKE WHAT THEY DON’T KNOW. A Newsweek poll (2/19) found that people don’t like Obama’s health care reform proposal until they learn what is in the bill. When asked whether they favored or opposed Obama’s plan, 40% said they favored it and 49% said they opposed it. The requirement that insurance companies cover anyone, including those with pre-existing conditions, gets 76% approval; the requirement that most businesses offer health insurance to their employees, with tax incentives for small businesses, gets 75% approval; the creation of an exchange where people can compare plans and buy insurance at competitive rates gets 81% approval; even the requirement that all Americans have health insurance, with the government providing help for those who can’t afford it, gets 59% approval, though fines for individuals who don’t obtain coverage is opposed by 62% and a tax on insurers who offer the most expensive “Cadillac” health plans is opposed by 55%. And after hearing that those are parts of Obama’s health plan, poll respondents ended up approving 48% to 43%.

The poll also found that Obama is doing a much better job than Republicans in Congress, as 46% prefer Obama’s handling of the economy, compared with 30% for the GOP. It noted similar gaps on job creation, tax policy, the federal budget deficit and the handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only issue where Republicans in Congress polled better than the president is on the use of military courts vs. civilian trials for terrorism suspects, as 38% prefer the GOP approach that ignores the Constitution while 34% prefer Obama’s.

The number of Americans satisfied with where the country is going has also dropped, from 22% back in April 2009 to 19% in February, as 73% are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. If the congressional elections were held today, 45% said they would vote for or lean toward a Democrat, 43% would vote or lean Republican, and 12% were undecided.

WHO BROKE US JOBS MACHINE? Corporate consolidation, brought on by decades of weak antitrust enforcement in Washington, has reduced opportunities for small businesses to thrive, expand and challenge the multinational corporations that dominate their markets, Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman write in the March/April Washington Monthly. Since small businesses are the source of most new jobs, that means it will take more than tax breaks and stimulus spending to great America’s jobs machine working again, Steven Benen noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (2/22). “It’s going to require a federal government that will enforce the nation’s antitrust laws, bring more competition back into markets and unleash the creative energies of America’s entrepreneurs.”

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO FULL EMPLOYMENT? The New York Times had an analysis (2/19) of the Fed’s “exit strategy” from its monetary policy that was designed to support the economy after the collapse of the housing bubble. Dean Baker noted at Prospect.org (2/20) that the “exist strategy” implies the Fed is also violating the law that requires it to pursue the goals of price stability and high employment, which is defined as 4% unemployment. “The Fed’s own projections show the unemployment rate remaining above 5% for the next 5 years. With no serious threat to price stability on the horizon (the core inflation rate has been falling), there is no obvious justification for the Fed’s failure to more aggressively pursue expansionary policy.” Baker added, “The NYT and the rest of the media should be running stories on the Fed’s blatant violation of the law.”

BIPARTISAN BAND-AID. A $15 bln jobs package moved forward in the Senate on a 62-30 vote, with 5 Republicans joining 55 Dems for the bill, which would give companies who hire unemployed workers an exemption from paying payroll taxes on those workers through 2010. It also provides a $1,000 tax credit to employers who keep new workers on payroll for at least 52 weeks. The bill also extends a tax break for small businesses buying new equipment and help state and local governments finance infrastructure projects. It also would renew highway programs through December and deposit $20 bln in the highway trust fund. GOP Sens. Kit Bond (Mo.), Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe (Maine) and George Voinovich (Ohio) voted with the Dems on what AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka called “a Band-Aid on an amputated limb.” Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sided with 29 Repubs. .

The House in December approved a $154 bln jobs bill that includes many of the Senate features but also would redirect $75 bln from the Wall Street bailout to infrastructure projects, send aid to states and extend the COBRA insurance subsidy for unemployed workers from nine months to 15 months.

PAUL TOPS GOP ’12 PACK. Rep. Ron Paul was the favorite Republican candidate for president at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, as the antiwar libertarian Republican got 31% in the straw poll, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 22% and former half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s 7%. David Weigel of WashingtonIndependent.com noted (2/22) that Paul’s candidacy was promoted by youthful libertarians who were energized by his 2008 campaign, as well as the John Birch Society, which made a showy return to the conservative fold with a co-sponsorship and a booth at CPAC. Announcement of Paul’s victory in the straw poll was booed by the CPAC crowd, but Weigel noted that Paul wasn’t around to enjoy his triumph as he had to return to his Southeast Texas district to debate three Tea-Party-inspired Republican challengers. The cons also applauded Fox News host Glenn Beck’s history lesson that traced progressivism’s war on American values back to Teddy Roosevelt, long a GOP icon, because he sponsored progressive reforms, which Beck said was the beginning of big government and the “socialist utopia.”

GOP REP: ‘IMPLODE’ IRS OFFICES. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told a crowd at CPAC (2/20) that he could “empathize” with the suicide bomber who flew his plane into an IRS office in Austin, killing himself and an IRS employee and injuring two others (2/18). King encouraged his listeners to “implode” other IRS offices, a witness told TalkingPointsMemo.com (2/22). Asked later by ThinkProgress.org to clarify his comments, King said he had been personally audited by the IRS “and I’ve had the sense of ‘why is the IRS in my kitchen.’ Why do they have their thumb in the middle of my back.” He added, “It’s sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.”

ECONOMISTAKES. The Economist believes President Obama would have more legislative successes under his belt if only he had done more to reach out to his opponents. “It is not so much that America is ungovernable, as that Mr Obama has done a lousy job of winning over Republicans and independents to the causes he favours. If, instead of handing over health care to his party’s left wing, he had lived up to his promise to be a bipartisan president and courted conservatives by offering, say, reform of the tort system, he might have got health care through; by giving ground on nuclear power, he may now stand a chance of getting a climate bill,” the British editors opined.

If only Obama had offered tort reform in exchange for GOP votes! But Matt Yglesias noted at ThinkProgress.org (2/22) that in May 2009 Obama did precisely that: “[R]ight there in the Cabinet Room, the President put a proposal on the table, according to two people who were present. Obama said he was willing to curb malpractice awards, a move long sought by the Republicans and certain to bring strong opposition from the trial lawyers who fund the Democratic Party. What, he wanted to know, did the Republicans have to offer in return? Nothing, it turned out. Republicans were unprepared to make any concessions, if they had any to make.”

Steve Benen noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (2/22) that House and Senate bills included hundreds of Republican amendments in the committee mark-up process that were incorporated in the president’s plan. On nuclear power, Benen noted that Obama not only made concessions but also accepted Republican demands for more coastal drilling, as part of an attempt to compromise on a climate bill. In response, the Rs said they would block Congress from even voting up or down on the legislation.

“What’s frustrating is the notion, too often accepted by the media establishment, that the president has somehow been a rigid ideologue,” Benen wrote. “That’s not just wrong; it’s insane. On literally every major piece of legislation of the past 13 months, Obama has been willing — anxious, even — to work with GOP lawmakers. Republicans have slapped away his outreached hand in every instance.”

As Paul Krugman explained in the New York Times (2/22), “Unfortunately, the commentariat seems to be full of people who know, just know, that Obama isn’t getting Republican cooperation because he’s in the thrall of left-wingers — and just make stuff up to bolster their case. The truth, which is obvious from every day’s news, is that there is nothing, nothing at all, that Obama could offer — other than switching parties — that would get him any GOP cooperation.”

NRA NOT FOOLED BY OBAMA’S SUPPORT FOR GUN RIGHTS. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence flunked President Obama’s first year in office, calling the president’s inaction on gun control “an abject failure” as “Obama has signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than in President George W. Bush’s eight years in office. From the repeal of Reagan Era rules keeping loaded guns out of national parks to the repeal of post-9/11 policies to safeguard Amtrak from armed terrorist attacks, President Obama’s stance on guns has endangered our communities and threatened our national security,” the Brady Center reported.

But that hasn’t gained Obama any support from the National Rifle Association, 79% of whose members still believed, as of December, that Obama will definitely or probably try to outlaw gun sales. And the NRA still isn’t happy. “A spokesman admits the president has signed some provisions it favors, but notes that they were attached to legislation he wanted, making them hard to veto,” Steve Chapman wrote at Reason.com (2/15), quoting the NRA’s Andrew Arulanandam, “He has disappointed us with his appointments,” particularly Atty. Gen. Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, neither a darling of the shooting set.

BILL TARGETS HIRED GUNS. The US military would stop using private security contractors in war zones under bills filed in the Senate and House (2/23). The US employed more than 22,000 hired guns in Iraq and Afghanistan last year, with some paid as much as $1,000 a day. They protect diplomats, trained military and police officers and repaired and maintained weapons systems. Contractors also were involved with interrogations and intelligence gathering. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) are sponsors.

The Stop Outsourcing Security Act would restore responsibility of the American military to train troops and police, guard convoys, repair weapons, administer military prisons, and perform military intelligence. The bill also would require all diplomatic security be provided by US government personnel. Any exceptions would be subject to congressional oversight.

The legislation also would subject contracts exceeding $5 mln to congressional oversight. Agencies with military contractors would report the number of contractors employed, disclose the total cost of contracts, and make public any disciplinary actions against employees. See JanSchakowsky.org.

‘OATH KEEPERS’ RAISE FEARS. Paranoid right wingers who think Barack Obama is hatching plans to round them up into internment camps are old news. Even paranoid right wingers with guns are barely worth a second glance these days, Kevin Drum noted at MotherJones.com (2/22). “But how about paranoid right wingers with guns and uniforms? Meet the Oath Keepers, the hottest new patriot group in the country.” Justine Sharrock spent months getting to know them and in the March/April *Mother Jones* she writes that “what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution — but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey “unconstitutional” orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.”

Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate, she wrote, but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion. When she questioned Oath Keepers about the Obama-Hitler comparisons she’d heard at a conference, she wrote, “I got a step-by-step tutorial on how the president’s socialized medicine agenda would beget a Nazi-style regime.

“I learned that bringing guns to Tea Party protests was a reminder of our constitutional rights, was introduced to the notion that the founding fathers modeled their governing documents on the Bible, and debated whether being Muslim meant an inability to believe in and abide by — and thus be protected by — the Constitution. I was schooled on the treachery of the Federal Reserve and why America needs a gold standard, and at dinner one night, Nighta Davis, national organizer for the National 912 Project, explained how abortion-rights advocates are part of a eugenics program targeting Christians. I also met Lt. Commander Guy Cunningham, a retired Navy officer and Oath Keeper who in 1994 took it upon himself to survey personnel at the 29 Palms Marine Corps base about their willingness to accept domestic missions and serve with foreign troops. A quarter of the Marines he polled said that they would be willing to fire on Americans who refused to disarm in the face of a federal order — a finding routinely cited by militia and patriot groups worried about excessive government powers.”

COMPENSATION FOR DISCRIMINATED BLACK FARMERS. After decades of discrimination, litigation and negotiating, the Obama administration announced a $1.25 bln deal with black farmers to end a stalemate over charges of racial discrimination. The dispute goes back to the decades after World War II when black American farmers were denied federal loans and generally iced out by government agricultural agencies, Nancy Scola noted at Prospect.org (2/20). In 1999, the Pigford vs. Glickman class action suit settlement set up payment to black farmers, but 70,000 missed the application window. As a senator, Obama sponsored legislation to reopen the compensation process, but Bush’s USDA resisted prioritizing funds for it. Obama has budgeted $1.3 bln for the second wave of payments.

CHARLIE WILSON’S LAST WORDS. Charlie Wilson, the colorful former congressman from East Texas, bon vivant and enabler of the jihad against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan in the 1980s depicted in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, died in Lufkin (2/9).

Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman, who knew Wilson from Herman’s days as a reporter at the Lufkin Daily News, spoke with Wilson last December: “Wilson was chagrined about how the war was going in a nation with which he is so closely associated because of his efforts in arming anti-Soviet forces. ‘This is really a tough one for me because I’m trying not to run my mouth too much, which is an unusual situation for me,’ he said.

“‘Generally, I’m a pretty optimistic person, and I’m not very optimistic about this,’ Wilson told me. ‘I feel like I would not be surprised if in two years we’ve taken a lot of casualties and spent a lot of money and don’t have much to show for it.’”

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2010


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