Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lieberman plays hardball on health care; why aren't Democrats returning the favor?

Joseph Lieberman is one influential U.S. Senator, despite having no official party allegiance. A former vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, Lieberman lost a primary challenge in 2006 but won as an independent in the general election of that year. As an independent, Lieberman still caucuses with the Democratic majority -- though you wouldn't know it judging from some of the controversial stances he takes against the party's main policies.

His latest escapade involves his stance on health care reform. Though a lifelong Democrat, Lieberman opposed the idea of a public option, and in recent weeks suggested that he wouldn't oppose a Republican-led filibuster to oppose it. When other moderate Senators suggested the same idea, a group of ten Democratic Senators devised a compromise that would allow Americans to buy-into non-profit but private health insurance plans, with people over 55 but under 65 being able to buy-into Medicare, the national insurance program for retired Americans.

In the past, Lieberman has supported the buy-in idea for Medicare. In 2000, as Al Gore's vice presidential running-mate, he campaigned on the idea, and suggested the idea himself as a potential compromise no more than three months ago.

So it came as a big surprise to Senate leadership this week when Lieberman said he couldn't support a compromise bill that included the Medicare buy-in provision. Suddenly he had a problem with the idea, and worried the bill would bring greater budget deficits and eventually lead to a single payer health care system (despite it requiring people to buy-into the insurance program, not receive entitlements for free).

Without seeing the estimates for the costs of the compromised bill (still being calculated by the Congressional Budget Office), Lieberman announced this week that, despite most of his demands being met, he would still join a Republican filibuster that would effectively table debate on the issue (this after Lieberman had also denounced using such tactics).

Such an action is not only irresponsible, it's incomprehensible. Lieberman has no basis on which he makes his claims, no grounds to stand on to oppose the compromised bill at this time (except maybe potential campaign contributions). It'd be different if the CBO came back with the estimates and showed the compromise would increase deficits -- but that hasn't happened yet. Lieberman should reserve his judgment, saying he may or may not support the bill based upon such findings, or if he is opposed to health care reform of any kind he should just come out and say it already.

If that's the case, then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ought to reconsider whether Lieberman should have leadership positions within the Democratic-controlled Senate. As it stands right now, Sen. Lieberman chairs the committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

As an independent Senator, this is a very generous appointment -- Reid could have selected an actual Democrat to hold this chairmanship. But because of his loyalty to the party, Reid allowed Lieberman to chair the committee when Democrats took control in 2006. (It also helped to appease Lieberman when he was a crucial vote during a time of slim majorities in the Senate).

That committee chairmanship may prove to be a good bargaining chip, should Reid want to play some hardball with Lieberman. Reid isn't obligated in any way to keep Lieberman in that position of power. Reid very well could coax Lieberman, at the very least, into voting for cloture on the filibuster in order to pave the way for an up-or-down vote on health care reform. If Lieberman doesn't want to do that, Reid could threaten him with removal from the Homeland Security chairmanship.

It's very political, but that's the way the game is played. And it seems that Lieberman is very accustomed to playing games, having held the process of reforming health care hostage several times, refusing to budge on any compromise that's been offered to him. He's continuing to play games with Senate leadership, vowing to filibuster the bill before any legitimate reason to do so even arises. Senate Democrats ought to at least consider using this political move to persuade Lieberman to back cloture of the Republican-led filibuster.

After that, Lieberman can vote "no" on reform without any repercussions. At least that way the bill could get a straight vote, rather than being held back by a Senator who has a beef with liberal Democrats.

He has thwarted us before -- he previously opposed Democratic plans for Iraq and campaigned for John McCain during the election for president in 2008 (against Democratic nominee Barack Obama). We should learn from our mistakes: this should be the last time Lieberman thwarts us, on a policy that Democrats have been fighting more than half a century for no less. Reid should offer him one last chance to change his mind on the filibuster. If Lieberman wants to play hardball, the Democrats shouldn't be afraid to return the favor.

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