New Campaign Highlights Growing Rift Between Grassroots Liberals and the Democratic Party


The lumbering fight over health care reform continues on Capitol Hill, and remains the focus of intense media coverage. But that focus belies a rift emerging on the left between grassroots and establishment Democrats over where the process should go next.

The schism is exemplified by the formation of a new Democracy for America campaign, called America Can’t Wait, to pressure Democratic leaders to stop courting Senate centrists and pass health care reform through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process. In a letter to DFA members, America Can’t Wait founder Howard Dean wrote “At least 218 House and 51 Senate Democrats have said they would vote for the final healthcare bill if it included the choice of a public option rather than vote against the bill and kill reform.”

“Senate rules don’t allow filibusters of certain bills that affect the budget,” Dean went on. “That’s right; the healthcare reform plan including the choice of a public option can be passed in a budget bill by a majority vote in the U.S. Senate.”

But Senate leaders on the Hill urge caution.They see the reconciliation process as a last resort–to be invoked only if a bipartisan effort fails–and warn that the technical demands of the process itself could cause substantive harm to reform legislation.

Martin Paone–a former Hill staffer, budget expert, and Chairman of the Board at the Timmons and Company lobbying firm–has been advising Democratic staff on how to navigate the twists and turns of the reconciliation process. He says “the best case is not to use reconciliation to get [health care reform] done if you can get the 60 votes to support a bill coming out of Finance next week. Otherwise it’s going to be a difficult slog.”

But that doesn’t seem to be a warning the grassroots want to hear. In the same letter to DFA members, Dean quoted a different budget expert named Stan Collender who once wrote “contrary to what some have been saying, reconciliation has become such a standard part of the budget process that using it for health care would be neither surprising nor precedent-setting.”

Collender’s argument isn’t just political. Reached today by phone, he said he wasn’t aware that Dean had quoted him, but was glad to hear the news. He noted that the process’ long, well-documented history will yield many examples of non-budgetary measures passing through reconciliation, because they have direct fiscal bearing on other provisions that are budget relevant.

Ultimately the Senate parliamentarian has a great deal of say over whether those measures should be allowed in the final legislation, and Collender says, “every parliamentarian looks at precedent all the time.” Sufficed to say, Democrats will cite precisely these sorts of precedents if and when they turn to the reconciliation process.

But Paone notes, “other program reforms, of which there may be many, may not survive and as such the bill will not be as comprehensive as many would prefer…. None of this is insurmountable but it does illustrate Senator Conrad’s point of why a bipartisan bill done outside of reconciliation is the more preferable route.”

This is true–but it may not be enough to assuage grassroots liberals who believe Democrats can circumvent the parliamentarian if only they’re willing to play hardball.

Which is all a long way of saying the rift is deep and technical and symbolic of the greater rift that’s emerged between the grassroots and Democratic leaders over the handling of health care reform more broadly.

Late update Along the same lines of the DFA campaign, the advocacy group CREDO Action sent the following letter out to about 600,000 subscribers.

Tell Senator Reid: It’s time to take bipartisanship out of the health care bill.

Dear Matt,

It’s time for Harry Reid to step up to show leadership and pass the public option through the Senate.

A strong public option is overwhelmingly popular with the public, the House has the votes to pass a bill with a strong public option and President Obama says that he wants to sign a bill with a strong public option.

Yet in the Senate, some Democrats have been allowed to stall reform by fruitlessly trying to attract the votes of Republicans who want nothing more than to see any health care reform effort fail. It’s clear that getting even a single Republican vote would require unacceptably weakening the bill. Bipartisanship is simply not worth it.

It is Senator Reid’s job as Senate Majority Leader to corral his caucus and ensure progressive policies that can pass, do pass.

We have the votes to win on the public option. Unlike other types of bills in the Senate, the public option can be passed as a “reconciliation bill” that cannot be filibustered and only requires a simply majority to pass.

The American people elected a Democratic President and gave Democrats overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress. Now that Democrats are in control, they need to wield the power they’ve been given. The stakes are too high and the Republicans are too beholden to those who profit from the status quo.

Tell Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the delays and use his leadership position to get a bill with a public option through the Senate. By clicking here we will automatically add your name to the petition above.

Thank you for working to build a better world.