Bernie Sanders’ single-payer health care plan has won over most other liberal senators, including many weighing 2020 bids.
The rest of the Democratic Party is another matter.
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As Sanders prepares to unveil his Medicare for All legislation on Wednesday, most of the party’s congressional leaders and vulnerable Senate incumbents are steering clear. Even as the left celebrates Sanders’ ability to push the Democratic agenda leftward after his primary challenge to Hillary Clinton last year, that success appears to have its limits.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters that he would be “looking at all of” the party’s “many good” proposals to expand health care access, but declined to back Sanders. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared that her priority is shielding Obamacare from a GOP repeal push that’s not yet dead for good.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the few Democrats subject to 2020 speculation who has not signed on to the Sanders bill, warned against letting the party’s attention slip to “longer-term health care policy” while the future of the Affordable Care Act remains up for debate.
“I think the risk is that we get distracted,” Murphy told reporters. “September’s not done. They can still ram through a repeal bill.”
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Tuesday became the single-payer bill’s first supporter from the class of Senate Democrats up for reelection next year in states Trump carried. But other politically imperiled incumbent Democrats have said no to Sanders.
Sen. Claire McCaskill said in a brief interview that lawmakers have more work to do to keep health care costs in check “before we would think about expanding that [Medicare] system for everyone.”
Single-payer on a national level would have “a lot of problems,” McCaskill added, although she came out in support of allowing individuals as young as 55 to buy into Medicare. That idea is also backed by Baldwin and two other red-state Democrats up for reelection next year who are declining to endorse Sanders’ bill: Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Stabenow, also a member of Democratic leadership, said Tuesday that she would keep working on her Medicare-at-55 plan “because I think there is some bipartisan interest in that.” She said the party’s first order of business should be shoring up the Obamacare markets, followed by other goals.
“The first thing has to be to protect the health care people have now and stabilize markets, no question,” Stabenow said. “But we need to focus on lowering the cost of prescription drugs and providing more health care, more health care options.”
Improving the Affordable Care Act is the core of a bipartisan effort in the Senate health committee. The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Democratic leadership, also declined to endorse Sanders’ bill on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of Democratic ideas out there, and I haven’t had the chance to look at all of them,” Murray said, adding that she remains “very focused” on the committee’s work.
Republicans have already seized on the high costs of imposing a single-payer system — which Sanders’ presidential campaign proposed to pay for with new taxes on employers and wealthy individuals — to hammer Democrats for supporting the idea. The National Republican Senatorial Committee criticized Baldwin on Tuesday for backing “the left’s radical plans for government-run health care.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership, also reminded reporters Tuesday that Sanders’ home state of Vermont had to back away from its own single-payer health proposal after the economic burden proved too onerous.
Backers of the Sanders bill acknowledge that single-payer is a heavy political lift but describe it as an important benchmark for Democrats’ future. As the party hones its identity beyond opposition to Trump’s agenda, single-payer fans see enough room to set big long-term goals while waging the shorter-term battle to protect Obamacare.
“There’s nothing about the politics of the moment or the Affordable Care Act that in any way precludes supporting Medicare-for-all as the ultimate goal, and there’s a clear path to it,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal. The Connecticut Democrat signed on to the bill Tuesday.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has been mentioned as a possible 2020 candidate, also expects to sign on to the single-payer bill, a spokesman said Tuesday. Franken noted that his cosponsorship reflects the bill’s status as a long-term goal while the party continues short-term work on Obamacare.
“This bill is aspirational, and I’m hopeful that it can serve as a starting point for where we need to go as a country,” Franken said in a statement. “In the short term, however, I strongly believe we must pursue bipartisan policies that improve our current health care system for all Americans — and that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in the Senate Health Committee, on which both Senator Sanders and I sit.”
For other Democrats, however, the idea’s time may have not yet come.
Ben Cardin said in an interview that he supports universal health coverage but has “certain concerns” about using single-payer to achieve that goal.
“There’s the political issue, but there’s also the issue about how you make sure there will be adequate resources put into health care,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a member of leadership who’s among the GOP’s top targets in 2018, walked a fine line Tuesday as Republicans revived his past comments welcoming a discussion of a government-run health care system.
“I am skeptical that single-payer is the right solution, but I believe that the Senate should carefully consider all of the options through regular order so that we can fully understand the impacts of these ideas on both our people and our economy,” Manchin said in a statement on Tuesday.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, facing consternation from liberals in her home state of California — where an effort to enact single-payer statewide ran aground this year — said that she would want to see the price tag before taking a position on Sanders’ bill.
“My understanding is, the cost of single-payer is enormous,” Feinstein said, noting that she supports a public option for health insurance outside the private market.
Murphy and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz have offered their own ideas to shift the party’s health care debate leftward without going as far as Sanders’ plan would. The Connecticut Democrat is working on legislation creating a Medicare buy-in for all individuals and businesses, while Schatz told POLITICO he expects to release a Medicaid buy-in proposal later this month.
Murphy said he would not sign on to Sanders’ bill before its release, urging “our party to take some time and look at all the options available to us before we decide on one unitary route.”
And even as some Sanders-aligned activists spook Democrats with talk of possible primary challenges to candidates who don’t support the single-payer plan, other liberals were content to cheer the Vermont independent for attracting more than one-quarter of the caucus to his legislation. Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green, who worked with Murphy on the Medicare buy-in plan, said that “Democrats are increasingly wrapping themselves in the flag of” single-payer without closing off other options that advance the ball.
“This is how big ideas like expanding Social Security and debt-free college were moved into the mainstream — the North Star gets put up, solid organizing is done, critical mass is built in Congress and on the campaign trail, and party consensus falls into place,” Green said by email. “It’s happening now.”