Sunday, October 25, 2009

Not Dead Yet

by: William Rivers Pitt, t r u t h o u t | Columnist

(Illustration: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t)

I don't want to go on the cart!
- "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"

For the last several weeks, politicians, political action groups and pundits have been declaring the "Public Option" portion of President Obama's health care reform push all but dead. Republicans, with typical shoulder-to-shoulder unanimity, have been shouting it down with bull-throated ferocity. Well-heeled interest groups have been spraying the airways with anti-public-option propaganda.

Democrats, of course, have been going 17 directions at once and, as usual, gotten exactly nowhere; they're for it, against it, sorta-kinda-maybe-yes-no, oh, please, somebody tell me what to think. Even President Obama, who promised a public option approximately 12,000 times in the run-up to this debate, has been sending increasingly conflicted signals on the matter. He wants it, but can live without it, but won't be happy about it, but might be happy about it if he gets a bill to sign.

There's a word for this: bedlam. It's not very conducive to clarity, and is a large part of the reason much of the public has been less than enthusiastic about the entire enterprise. The Democrats control the White House, House and Senate, but haven't been able to get out of their own way, and the GOP has been doing what the GOP does best: throw rocks, muddy the waters and get people all riled up about existential threats to all that is American even though no such threats actually exist.

Quite suddenly, however, a rather large break in the clouds has come on the public option issue, and for the first time since this debate began in earnest, it actually seems possible the option may win its way into a spot on the final legislation. It began early this week with a new Washington Post/ABC News poll that had 57 percent of Americans approving of a public option being included in health care reform. This number is down from 62 percent approval for the public option in June, when the chaos truly began, but is up from 52 percent approval in August.

On the heels of this poll came new health care reform numbers from the Congressional Budget Office that seem to prove the public option will not be the deficit annihilator described by the GOP. "A preliminary estimate from the Congressional Budget Office projects that the House Democrats' health care plan that includes a public option would cost $871 billion over 10 years," reported CNN on Tuesday. "CBO also found that the Democrats' bill reduces the deficit in the first ten years. This new CBO estimate, which aides caution is not final, is significantly less than the original $1.1 trillion price tag of the original House bill that passed out of three committees this summer. More importantly, it comes under the $900 billion cap set by President Obama in his joint address to Congress last month."

Democrats, ever fearless in the face of positive numbers, suddenly exploded into a frenzy of pro-public-option campaigning immediately after those numbers were released. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) leaped at the new CBO estimate to announce that the House will not allow any legislation to become finalized without the inclusion of a "robust public option."

"In recent days," reported Talking Points Memo this week, "Pelosi has insisted that she intends to send House negotiators to a health care conference committee with the maximum possible leverage for the public option. And House health care principals have been working doggedly to keep the price of reform down with the help of the public option - so in a sense, the news of this final push comes as little surprise: Pelosi is, as expected, using the fiscal responsibility of the robust public option to win over enough skeptics in her caucus to pass it. And she is, reportedly, very close to doing that."

Pretty heady stuff, that.

The action has not been confined to the House on this issue. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia), who had been deeply hesitant about backing any legislation that included a public option, suddenly boomeranged back toward support for it, albeit a version that includes an "opt-out" provision that allows citizens to exit the program if they don't like it. Even more surprising was the fact that one of the most conservative and anti-public-option Democrats in the Senate, Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska), likewise voiced support for a public option with an opt-out provision.

How all this will eventually shake out remains deeply uncertain, but if the public option is to survive and become part of the final legislation, its proponents have picked exactly the right time to begin a full-court press. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this new drive to save the public option came in the guise of Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Florida), the House member who became an instant folk hero on the left when he described the GOP's idea of health reform as "die quickly." Representative Grayson has launched a web site called, which allows citizens to tell their stories of friends and family members who have died due to a lack of health insurance.

"Grayson announced the creation of the site on the House floor Wednesday and displayed a poster with the site's address," reported The Hill on Wednesday. "He said the names of those who die because of a lack of health insurance should be identified. 'I propose that we honor their memory by naming them,' he said, concluding his remarks by stating that with health care reform, 'no one will ever die in America because they can't see a doctor.'"

I feel happy.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" and "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence." His newest book, "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation," is now available from PoliPointPress.

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