Michael Bennet shows real leadership on public option

As President Obama gathers Senate leaders to discuss health care reform later this week, it may be the last opportunity for Republicans to contribute to a health care bill. If he fails to negotiate a bipartisan agreement, Senate Democrats are very likely to use the reconciliation method to pass a health care bill with no Republican votes.

Assuming that the Republicans are unlikely to compromise with Obama, some Democrats see an opportunity to pass real health care reform, including a public option, through the reconciliation process.

Leading the Senate on this issue is Colorado’s junior senator, Michael Bennet. He revived the public option with a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asking him to “bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.”

Under reconciliation rules, a bill can be passed by a simple majority of 51 senators. These bills are not subject to the cloture vote that requires 60 votes for legislation to advance. Deprived of their primary tool for obstruction, Republicans would have no power to prevent health care reform from being passed.

Though Bennet has been hailed as a hero in some circles, he has been less well treated in his home state. The Daily Sentinel questioned his sincerity. “Is he standing on principle when it comes to health care reform,” the Sentinel asked, “or is he playing to the political left as he faces a tough Democratic primary challenge?”

Regardless of Bennet’s reason, the Sentinel alleges, his position “seems to ignore a few political realities,” like the Tea Party protests and dwindling public support for health care reform.

The Denver Post makes a similar point by complaining that recent actions by Bennet “reek of calculation. Is he so nervous about his primary with Andrew Romanoff that he’s looking to curry favor with leftist activists?” the Post asks.

What the Post calls “calculation,” and the Sentinel suggests may be opportunism, others call leadership. Since Bennet’s letter was sent, the number of signatures has grown to 22. Other senators are expected to sign, and some openly support the idea, though they have not signed the petition. Even some Blue Dogs are said to favor a vote on the public option.

Bennet’s letter has also re-energized the portion of the Internet community that was so active in electing Obama. Undecided Democrats are being targeted with letters, phone calls, petitions and e-mails urging them to support this final opportunity to include a public option in the health care bill.

Under pressure both from congressional Democrats and grassroots America, Reid has agreed to a reconciliation vote if it is the will of the senators.

Obama has indicated he would sign a bill including a public option, though he is not advocating one.

Far from having “a tin ear for what most Coloradans and Americans want,” as the Post charges, Bennet seems very much in touch with both the state and the nation on the public option. It is the Senate leadership that seems out of touch.

In his letter, Bennet cited a New York Times poll from December that finds 59 percent of Americans favor the public option, while only 29 percent oppose it. This support is bipartisan, including 80 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 33 percent of Republicans.

Bennet also points out that public support for health care declined after the public option was taken off the table.

As for Bennet’s “tin ear” for what Coloradans want, a January poll by Research 2000 Colorado found widespread support for the public option. Asked if they favor a government-administered health care plan that would compete with private insurance plans, 58 percent of Coloradans favored the government plan, while only 36 percent opposed it. By party affiliation, 85 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans favored the public option.

Whether or not the public option is passed, by bringing the issue back to the center of the health care debate, Bennet showed more initiative and leadership than the Democratic leaders of the Senate.

Rather than question Bennet’s motives and character, the press should celebrate the emergence of a new generation of Senate leadership. It is desperately needed.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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