Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2009 | 2 a.m.
After listening to constituents during the hot August health care debate, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas returns to the capital giving long odds that her party’s reform proposals will pass as is.
Too many questions remain, and too many distortions have seeped into the debate. Democrats wrongly assumed, she said, that because a majority of Americans voted for President Barack Obama, who made health care reform a top priority, they would be on board with the plan.
“We have a long way to go,” Berkley said last week as she was packing her bags to return to Washington. “If I was a betting woman, which I am, I wouldn’t place a bet on this ... It’s going to be a compromise piece of legislation, I believe. And it should be.”
As summer moves into fall, Democrats have arrived at a pivotal point in the health care debate, which will be highlighted by Obama’s televised address tonight during a rare joint session of Congress. (The speech airs at 5 p.m.)
Democrats continue to think health care reform will happen this year — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said there is 90 percent agreement among his senators on the shape of the legislation.
Yet they have come to understand that their constituents are anxious about change, even as most Americans tell pollsters they want health care reform that lowers costs and provides more stability than is now offered in employer-provided health care plans.
Democratic Rep. Dina Titus said she spent much of August talking with constituents, including 300 who showed up for her Congress on the Corner event at a Henderson grocery store on a recent Saturday.
As protesters from the angry crowd sat down with her one-on-one, Titus said she was able to dispel myths and misinformation (no death panels, no socialist takeover of health care) and dissipate the anger.
“I’m really glad that we didn’t try to rush it through before the break,” Titus said. Both she and Berkley urged party leaders to postpone the vote until they could talk to voters in August.
“I think generally people are becoming more supportive,” Titus said.
Obama is expected tonight to more openly enter the debate with his preferred outline of a bill that he has so far left to Congress to define. Reid emerged from a White House meeting with the president on Tuesday afternoon saying Democrats were “reenergized” to do the bill.
“I have every belief that when he finishes that speech tomorrow, the American people will be able to put aside the some of the ridiculous falsehoods that have been perpetrated these past few weeks,” Reid said.
Reid continues to insist he is working to secure bipartisan support for a bill, even after the intense Republican-led opposition to the Democratic proposals this summer. “We still, after all these months, have a place at the table for Republicans,” Reid said.
But that goal seems increasingly elusive as Republicans in both the House and Senate have made it clear they are unlikely to support Obama’s top priority, sensing instead the rare opportunity to deliver a potentially debilitating blow to the new president’s agenda.
More likely, the compromise that will be drafted as the clock counts down the first year of the Obama presidency will be among Democrats, as party leaders say they are looking within their ranks to determine what could win the most support.
Titus and other House freshmen from swing districts have expressed concerns with the their chamber’s proposal to raise taxes on those making more than $280,000 annually, which often includes small business owners, to help pay for the bill.
Yet perhaps the most polarizing component of the bill continues to be the public option.
Obama, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all prefer the public option, saying it is the way, as Reid often notes, to keep the insurance companies honest and stoke competition.
The public option would allow those who do not have access to health care from their employers to buy it from either the government or private insurers, with subsidies offered to middle- and low-income households.
“I personally am in favor of the public option,” Reid repeated Tuesday.
Yet Reid is unlikely to reach the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass a public option bill in the Senate.
Titus prefers the public option, but declined to say whether she would support a bill that does not have one, refusing to draw that line in the sand until she sees the full proposal.
Though she offered a hint a flexibility: “I don’t believe in the perfect being the enemy of the good.”
Nevada’s Republicans, Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller, have opposed the Democratic proposals for health care reform.
Ensign had said he is working on an alternative and has talked about the importance of rewarding healthy behavior, but has yet to release proposals of his own.
Heller’s views earned a spot last week in Newsweek magazine’s “The Five Biggest Lies in the Health Care Debate” for his insistence that illegal immigrants would be allowed government health care.
The House bill says clearly that no one in the country illegally will qualify for the subsidies that would be offered to buy private or government-sponsored insurance. Heller had offered an amendment that would have required citizenship verification, but it was shot down in committee.
There seems to be little room for compromise here between most Republicans and Democrats.
Yet Democrats have also realized that doing nothing may be the worst option of all, confirming popular criticism that Washington is broken.
Reid’s role as majority leader of the Senate will be crucial in shaping the final product.
Reid made his intentions clear Tuesday on the Senate floor: “Not acting is not an option.”