Union Frustrated with Obama on Senate Health Bill
December 17, 2009 - 3:46 PMThe head of a politically powerful union voiced deep disappointment Thursday over President Barack Obama's concessions to get health care overhaul through the Senate this year but stopped short of urging Democrats to kill the bill.
In an open letter to 2.1 million union members, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said he hopes a government health insurance option and other elements valued by liberals but likely to be missing from the Senate bill can be restored during negotiations with the House.
"President Obama must remember his own words from the campaign," Stern wrote in a letter posted on the union's Web site. "His call of 'Yes We Can' was not just to us, not just to the millions of people who voted for him, but to himself.
"Our challenge ... to the president, to the Senate, and to the House of Representatives is to fight," Stern continued. "Now, more than ever, all of us must stand up ... and fight like hell to deliver real and meaningful reform to the American people."
However, Stern did not echo former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean's call to scrap the legislation.
Stern's letter fueled a vigorous debate on the political left on what to do over what liberals perceive as a rapidly shrinking health care bill. Gone is the government insurance plan modeled on Medicare. So is the fallback, the option of allowing aging Baby Boomers to buy into Medicare. The major benefits of the bill won't start for three or four years, and then they'll be delivered through private insurance companies. Some middle-class people will not get enough federal help from the government to be able to afford their premiums.
"If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill," Dean wrote in an opinion piece published Thursday by The Washington Post. "The winners in this bill are insurance companies; the American taxpayer is about to be fleeced in a situation that dwarfs even what happened at AIG."
Moving to head off a revolt from the heart of his own party, Obama has been going out of his way to praise the Senate bill. It would cover an additional 30 million people, outlaw denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, and put into motion a range of experiments that may yet succeed in slowing the growth of health care costs. In meetings with Democratic senators, Obama acknowledged the legislation isn't perfect and doesn't have everything he would want. But he urged them to pass it, and keep working to make it better in future years.
The call to move ahead resonates with some liberals, veterans of many legislative struggles involving compromise and incremental progress.
"Who are we?" asked Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "What do you have to do when you have to govern? As you get closer (to a vote) you say, 'Who do I represent? What are they looking for me to deliver to them?'"
But Obama's exhortations have yet to produce the 60 votes Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., needs to overcome Republican delaying tactics and push the bill through the Senate. Reid said Thursday the Senate will finish the bill before leaving for the Christmas holidays, but behind the scenes he was struggling to get firm commitments from all the members of his caucus.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., remained the lone known holdout, concerned that abortion funding restrictions in the bill are too lax.
Associated Press Writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this story.
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