Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Party of One

Lieberman sides against constituents  Oct. 27: Rachel Maddow is joined by Fire Dog Lake founder and publisher Jane Hamsher to discuss the revelation by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-CT, that he will join a filibuster to block a health reform bill that includes a public option.

Beutler (TPM): Lieberman: Sure, I'd Filibuster A Health Care Reform Bill With A Public Option
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) told reporters today that he would in fact filibuster any health care bill he doesn't agree with--and right now, he doesn't agree with the public option proposal making its way through the Senate.
"I told Senator Reid that I'm strongly inclined--i haven't totally decided, but I'm strongly inclined--to vote to proceed to the health care debate, even though I don't support the bill that he's bringing together because it's important that we start the debate on health care reform because I want to vote for health care reform this year. But I also told him that if the bill remains what it is now, I will not be able to support a cloture motion before final passage. Therefore I will try to stop the passage of the bill."
There are two procedural issues at play here. Most people think of a filibuster as a minority blocking passage of a bill that's already been debated ad nauseum on the Senate floor. That's the most standard filibuster. But on major legislation, it's become more common for the minority--in this case the Republicans--to object to the majority getting a chance to debate legislation in the first place. If any one of them objects to the so-called motion to proceed, it will take 60 votes just to start the amendment and debate process. That's a less-discussed filibuster, but it's quite plausible that this health care bill will have to contend with it.
Lieberman is saying that he's pretty much OK with letting senators offer amendments--try to change the legislation, move it in any direction they deem necessary. But when that process is all over, and Harry Reid wants to hold an up or down vote on the final product, Lieberman's saying he'll join that filibuster, if he's not happy with the finished product. Point blank.
Even Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) doesn't go that far. "I'm not going to make up my mind until I actually see the bill," he told reporters.
One of Lieberman's main objections to the health care bill is that it includes a public option, which he describes as a burden on taxpayers.
"I think a lot of people may think that the public option is free. It's not. It's going to cost the taxpayers and people who have health insurance now, and if it doesn't it's going to add terribly to the national debt...there's so much in this health reform legislation that is so good, that I think they're just putting an unnecessary burden on top of it by creating another Washington-based entitlement program."
This is at great odds with the findings of most experts, who say that, by bringing efficiencies into the greater insurance market, and therefore lowering the government's subsidy burden, a public option will actually save money.
I asked him to square his rationale with the experts consensus, but he was undeterred. "Well all the history we have of health entitlement programs, including the two big ones that I dearly support, Medicare and Medicaid, is that they end up costing more than we're prepared to pay, and they add to the debt, and then they add to the burden on taxpayers."
As written, congressional health care legislation would require the public option--whether administered by a government, or by an outside body--would be financed by premiums, and unable to draw on federal funds.
Marc Ambinder notes this afternoon that Senate Democratic leaders and the White House still think that Joe Lieberman, when push comes to shove, will join Dems and support cloture on health care reform. "They think he's posturing for power but will cave," Ambinder said.
Ambinder added:
Now -- the final bill, post-conference, is going to look a bit different from the reconciled Senate bill. Lieberman is giving himself the power to influence the final bill. I doubt that the Senate leadership is going to press him too hard right now, preferring to see if he can be accommodated in the final debate.
To be sure, Lieberman seems to have left himself a little wiggle room. The senator said today that he's told Harry Reid that he'll support a Republican filibuster "if the bill remains what it is now." Since the amendment process will no doubt alter the bill, the argument goes, then Lieberman may yet come around.
But I wouldn't count on it.
I understand the argument. Lieberman loves attention and power. By threatening to join the Republican filibuster, he gets both -- Democrats have to scramble to make him happy, since there's no margin for error in putting together 60 votes. Lieberman gets to feel very important for the next several weeks by making this threat less than 24 hours after Harry Reid stated his intentions, but that doesn't necessarily mean he wants to be known forever as The Senator Who Killed Health Care Reform.
I find it very easy to believe, however, that Lieberman is capable of doing just that. He left himself some wiggle room, but not when it comes to the public option -- he's against it, no matter what, even with all of the compromises thrown in.
What's more, Lieberman didn't have to make the explicit threat to get the attention he craves -- he could have just as easily said he's keeping his options open, forcing Dems to cater to his demands. Instead, he went further, explicitly vowing to stop the Senate from even voting on the bill if some consumers in some states have a choice between public and private insurance plans.
What does Lieberman have to gain by following through on this threat? Well, if he plans to seek re-election in 2012, he'll need a lot of Republican support to have a chance. Running as the independent who single handedly prevented public-private competition would probably be a big selling point.
That said, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked this afternoon about Lieberman's willingness to filibuster reform. Reid told reporters, "Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid's problems."
I'm not sure how that's possible -- he can't get to 60 without Lieberman, and Lieberman is now vowing not to be part of the 60 -- unless Reid thinks the Connecticut senator might be more flexible than he's letting on.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was specifically asked this afternoon why he couldn't just vote for cloture -- letting health care reform come to the floor for a Senate vote -- and then oppose the bill itself. "Because that is not using the rights I have as a senator," he replied.
What's worth remembering, though, is that Lieberman uses his "rights" selectively, and has a record of ending filibusters on legislation he ultimately votes against.
In March 2005, the senator joined 55 Republicans and 13 Democrats in backing cloture on a bill that made several significant changes to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, chief among them making it more difficult to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act ended up passing the Senate by a vote of 74 to 25, with Lieberman in the opposition.
In September 2006, Lieberman did the same thing. The senator voted to invoke cloture on The Secure Fence Act, which would have used advanced technologies -- including unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar coverage, and cameras -- to create "operational control of the borders." The bill would pass by a vote of 80 to 19, with Lieberman joining many of the Democratic Party's more progressive members in voting nay.
In April 2007, Lieberman again granted a parliamentary pass to a bill that he ultimately opposed. The U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Health, and Iraq Accountability Act would have funded troops in Iraq provided that certain demands be made of the Iraqi government and that a timeline be implemented for the removal of U.S. forces. The bill ended up being passed by a vote of 51 to 46, with Lieberman voting against it, only to be vetoed by then President George W. Bush.
Lieberman, in other words, has "rights" that he only takes seriously when he wants to.

OK, so Joe Lieberman would rather see health care reform fail than allow some consumers to have a choice between public and private coverage. But one of the key clues to an unprincipled mind is an evolving explanation for opposition.
In June, Lieberman said, "I don't favor a public option because I think there's plenty of competition in the private insurance market." That didn't make sense, and it was quickly dropped from his talking points.
In July, Lieberman said he opposes a public option because "the public is going to end up paying for it." No one knew what that meant.
In August, he said we'd have to wait "until the economy's out of recession," which is incoherent, since a public option, even if passed this year, still wouldn't kick in for quite a while.
In September, Lieberman said he opposes a public option because "the public doesn't support it." A wide variety of credible polling proved otherwise.
Which brings us to October, and the latest in a series of weak explanations.
"We're trying to do too much at once," Lieberman said. "To put this government-created insurance company on top of everything else is just asking for trouble for the taxpayers, for the premium payers and for the national debt. I don't think we need it now." [...]
Lieberman said that he'd vote against a public option plan "even with an opt-out because it still creates a whole new government entitlement program for which taxpayers will be on the line."
Jon Chait explained that this "literally makes no sense whatsoever. A public plan does not provide a new entitlement. It just doesn't. It's a different form of providing an entitlement. Nor is it more expensive. In fact, the stronger versions of the public plan would cost less money. Lieberman is just babbling nonsense here."
Not that it matters -- it's almost November, which means Lieberman will have some equally unpersuasive argument very soon.

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