Michael Bennet and health care: Live by the public option, or die by it

Colorado's Michael Bennet is widely seen as being among the most vulnerable Democratic senators in advance of the November 2010 election -- hence President Barack Obama's fundraising visit to Denver last week before a primary vote -- timing that upset supporters of challenger Andrew Romanoff even as it brought some much needed attention to Romanoff's campaign.

The latest example of Bennet's importance to the Democratic Party? His portrayal as a "health care hero" for writing a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid calling on the Senate to pass a public option through reconciliation -- a procedural technique that infuriates Republicans.

Yesterday, the advocacy group Democracy For America sent out an e-mail to supporters framing a donation pitch around Bennet's efforts. E-mailers are urged to chip in $5 or more to the Bennet campaign -- and at this writing, a web link says $147,799 has been pledged to the cause.

This tactic is a gamble. If health care reform in general and the public option in particular are truly as unpopular as critics claim, Bennet is basically giving likely opponent Jane Norton a very large stick with which to pummel him. Then again, perhaps Bennet's only hope of being elected to a full term is to actually stand for something.

Look below to read the Democracy For America fundraising e-mail as well as Bennet's letter to Reid:

DFA Member --

A lot has happened since Friday.

First, your hard work has increased the number of signers to 20 Senators on Sen. Michael Bennet's letter, which calls for the Senate to pass a public option using reconciliation. Former Republican Senator Arlen Specter (PA) and current chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Robert Menendez (NJ) have joined Senators Chuck Schumer (NY) and Jeanne Shaheen (NH) as the most recent to sign on.

Second, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced support with this statement:

"If a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care, Senator Reid will work with the White House, the House, and members of his caucus in an effort to craft a public option that can overcome procedural obstacles and secure enough votes."

But it's not all good news. The senator who has led the charge -- Michael Bennet of Colorado -- is now being slammed by Republicans and conservative papers in his state.

We need to show Sen. Bennet we have his back -- and encourage him to stay strong and keep leading -- by contributing $5 to his 2010 campaign right now.


The Denver Post accused Sen. Bennet of trying to "jam [the public option] down our throats" while a Republican opponent accused him of showing "outright contempt" for voters. The attacks are wrong of course. Our recent Research 2000 poll shows clearly that 59% of Colorado voters want the public option, but the truth has never stopped Republicans from going on the attack.

When Governor Dean asked for 1,000 DFA members to donate $100 each to fuel the campaign for this critical upcoming week, the response yesterday was incredible -- with 1,157 donors by this morning. Thank you!

It was a big ask and you delivered the resources we'll need to make the difference next week. Now, we need to reach just a little deeper and show the bold leaders who've stood up to fight for us that we have their back when they're under attack. Just one $5 contribution times thousands of DFA members can make the difference and send a strong message of support to not back down.


When you click the link, you'll also be able to support Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand -- an original co-signer of Bennet's letter. Sen. Gillibrand is in a competitive primary against Wall Street Democrat Harold Ford and every dollar she raises will help deliver the resources to win.

The public option fight is not over. Next week, we'll still need to push many other senators to commit to voting with us. But this week's momentum would not have been possible without Senators Bennet and Gillibrand sticking their necks out for Republican attacks. Let's help them fight back right now.

Thank you for everything you do,

-- Charles

Charles Chamberlain, Political Director Democracy for America


Dear Leader Reid:

We respectfully ask that you bring for a vote before the full Senate a public health insurance option under budget reconciliation rules.

There are four fundamental reasons why we support this approach - its potential for billions of dollars in cost savings; the growing need to increase competition and lower costs for the consumer; the history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation; and the continued public support for a public option.

A Public Option Is an Important Tool for Restoring Fiscal Discipline.

As Democrats, we pledged that the Senate health care reform package would address skyrocketing health care costs and relieve overburdened American families and small businesses from annual double-digit health care cost increases. And that it would do so without adding a dime to the national debt.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) determined that the Senate health reform bill is actually better than deficit neutral. It would reduce the deficit by over $130 billion in the first ten years and up to $1 trillion in the first 20 years.

These cost savings are an important start. But a strong public option can be the centerpiece of an even better package of cost saving measures. CBO estimated that various public option proposals in the House save at least $25 billion. Even $1 billion in savings would qualify it for consideration under reconciliation.

Put simply, including a strong public option is one of the best, most fiscally responsible ways to reform our health insurance system.

A Public Option Would Provide Americans with a Low-Cost Alternative and Improve Market Competitiveness.

A strong public option would create better competition in our health insurance markets. Many Americans have no or little real choice of health insurance provider. Far too often, it's "take it or leave it" for families and small businesses. This lack of competition drives up costs and leaves private health insurance companies with little incentive to provide quality customer service.

A recent Health Care for America Now report on private insurance companies found that the largest five for-profit health insurance providers made $12 billion in profits last year, yet they actually dropped 2.7 million people from coverage. Private insurance - by gouging the public even during a severe economic recession - has shown it cannot function in the public's interest without a public alternative. Americans have nowhere to turn. That is not healthy market competition, and it is not good for the public.

If families or individuals like their current coverage through a private insurance company, then they can keep that coverage. And in some markets where consumers have many alternatives, a public option may be less necessary. But many local markets have broken down, with only one or two insurance providers available to consumers. Each and every health insurance market should have real choices for consumers.

There is a history of using reconciliation for significant pieces of health care legislation.

There is substantial Senate precedent for using reconciliation to enact important health care policies. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicare Advantage, and the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA), which actually contains the term 'reconciliation' in its title, were all enacted under reconciliation.

The American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein and Brookings' Thomas Mann and Molly Reynolds jointly wrote, "Are Democrats making an egregious power grab by sidestepping the filibuster? Hardly." They continued that the precedent for using reconciliation to enact major policy changes is "much more extensive . . . than Senate Republicans are willing to admit these days."

There is strong public support for a public option, across party lines.

The overwhelming majority of Americans want a public option. The latest New York Times poll on this issue, in December, shows that despite the attacks of recent months Americans support the public option 59% to 29%. Support includes 80% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and even 33% of Republicans.

Much of the public identifies a public option as the key component of health care reform -- and as the best thing we can do to stand up for regular people against big insurance companies. In fact, overall support for health care reform declined steadily as the public option was removed from reform legislation.

Although we strongly support the important reforms made by the Senate-passed health reform package, including a strong public option would improve both its substance and the public's perception of it. The Senate has an obligation to reform our unworkable health insurance market -- both to reduce costs and to give consumers more choices. A strong public option is the best way to deliver on both of these goals, and we urge its consideration under reconciliation rules.


Michael Bennet (D-CO), U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), U.S. Senator

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts