During the 2008 campaign, neither Barack Obama nor leading Democrats mentioned the government-run insurance plan or "public option". But this year it became the centerpiece of both the Senate and House bills. Now Senate leaders are dropping the public option and embracing a controversial expansion of Medicare for those 55 and older that wasn't even on the radar screens of most legislators until this week.
"I'm very puzzled ideas like this are being cooked up behind closed doors two weeks before Christmas, and we don't know what they are," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.
Even Democrats were skeptical of the late addition of Medicare expansion to the debate. "It is a major part of health reform that has clearly not gotten the airing of, say, the public option," acknowledged Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. Wondered Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: "What is the impact on the stability of Medicare? If we are going to expand it to three million people, then how are we going to pay for it? One of the ideas of health reform was to ensure the stability and solvency and benefit package of Medicare."
Politico.com reports that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won't release details of the Medicare expansion, even to his own members, until he first gets a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. That way he'll be able to add in whatever fiscal tricks and favors are needed to entice wavering Senators on-board to get the 60 votes he'll need to bring the bill up for final vote, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Meanwhile, the Senate bill is so unwieldy that the health-care system it will create will almost certainly break apart and force us into Canadian-style care. As Rep. Anthony Weiner (D., N.Y.) said in a statement, the Medicare expansion "would perhaps get us on the path to a single payer model." That grim prospect means there's still a chance to defeat or reshape the health-reform effort.
Opponents of ObamaCare will be aided by polls showing that it is even less popular than HillaryCare was a year into the Clinton presidency. Back in December 1993, Gallup found that 47% of voters backed HillaryCare, with 32% opposed. Today, an average of health-care surveys at Pollster.com shows support for ObamaCare at 38.8%, with 51.4% against.
The difference is that in 1993 and 1994, ads pointing out the weaknesses of HillaryCare were ubiquitous on TV. This time the White House has bullied the health-care industry into silence or sullen support.
But the falling poll numbers tell us anyone who tries to force a full health-care debate that pushes a vote past the holidays will not suffer politically. One reason the Democrats are frantic for a vote before Christmas is that they fear what will happen if senators have to go home and talk with constituents before voting, The Wall Street Journal reports.
It was also reported, there are still plenty of measures left to deal with before the Senate votes on a final bill. Lawmakers are considering a bipartisan proposal to allow the importing of drugs from foreign countries, and Republicans say they will offer an amendment ensuring that no individual making less $200,000 would see a tax increase under the bill.
Democrats continue to insist that the bill will save Americans money and save Medicare.
"This bill makes insurance more affordable for most Americans," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip, on Friday. "We have really labored long and hard to reach this point," MarketWatch reports.