Pushing Medicare For All, Progressives Pick A Fight With Both Republicans And Democrats

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Senate committee hearing in Washington last week. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Senate committee hearing in Washington last week. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Following the failure by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, progressive Democrats are feeling emboldened and pushing the health care debate in the other direction: toward a single-payer system.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will introduce his Medicare-for-all bill on Wednesday. A group of prominent Democrats is supporting it, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But the effort is dividing Democrats, and some say it could backfire.

A Debate Progressives Are Eager To Have

Sanders made the case for a government-run, single-payer health care program during his 2016 presidential campaign, and now he's pushing for it in the Senate — asking some big questions.

"Why is it that, in the United States of America, we are the only major country on Earth that doesn't guarantee health care to all people as a right?" Sanders asked fellow members of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at a hearing held last week to explore how to fix parts of the Affordable Care Act.

“It is no small thing that the [Affordable Care Act] has helped 20 million more Americans obtain health insurance,” Sanders told his colleagues. But he also said it's time to move beyond just tweaking the ACA.

“The time has come when we as a nation — and the polling now tells us 60 percent of the American people now believe the federal government should take responsibility — to guarantee health care as a right, something that I believe,” Sanders declared.

The bill Sanders is rolling out Wednesday would extend Medicare, the federally funded health insurance program for people over the age of 65, to all Americans. For a long time, single-payer health care was outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party. But now it's picking up support from prominent progressives, including Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey, and Kamala Harris, of California — both of whom are being talked about as potential 2020 presidential candidates.

Last week, Sen. Warren also signed on to the bill, writing on Facebook that it would be "one way that we can give every single person in the country access to high quality health care."

Warren told WBUR that the failed Republican effort to kill Obamacare demonstrated that most Americans would support Medicare for all.

“Republicans, Democrats and independents made it clear to Congress they want to see health care for all Americans, and they want to see it at an affordable price," Warren said. "And the federal government has an important role to play in that."

Sanders' bill faces almost impossible odds in the GOP-controlled Congress, but after the epic collapse of the Republican effort to kill the Affordable Care Act, it is a debate that progressives like Sanders and Warren are eager to have.

“In America right now there is one party that said, you know, it's fine to knock 25 million people off their health care coverage so that you could produce tax breaks for a handful of millionaires and billionaires,” Warren said. “There's another party, the Democratic Party, that says health care is a basic human right."

This is a debate that Republicans are also eager to join. A new digital ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee is targeting Democrats facing re-election next year in eight states, slamming them for supporting the proposal, which the ad claims would lead to disastrous consequences, including “trillions [of dollars] in higher taxes, government control of your doctors, hospitals and even prescriptions.”

Gloom and doom, dirge-like music provides the ad's soundtrack, as images appear of prominent Democrats, including Sanders, Warren and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, all of whom utter the fateful phrase, “single-payer system.”

Reaching Too Far To The Left?

A government-run, single-payer system is also prompting a debate within the Democratic Party, between progressives and moderates.

Matt Bennett, senior vice president of Third Way, which describes itself as a centrist think tank, believes his fellow Democrats would be making a big mistake to invest political capital in pursuing a policy which he says could be “unbelievably politically poisonous.”

“It would involve the largest tax increase in the history of the world. And we don't even know, should it pass and become law, if it would even work," Bennett said.

Bennett says passing major health care legislation is historically difficult — just ask presidents from Clinton to Obama to Trump.

Instead, he says, Democrats should focus on saving and shoring up Obamacare.

Bennett's echoes the views of Mark Penn, a former pollster and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, who wrote recently in The New York Times that Democrats should embrace the center and avoid what he calls the "sharply leftist ideas" of progressives like Sanders and Warren.

When WBUR asked Warren about Penn’s argument, she rolled her eyes. “Give me a break!” she said. "Health care isn't some 'sharply leftist idea.'"

And Warren rejected the argument from moderates that progressives like her are reaching too far.

“I think our party has to show two things: One, what are our values? And the second thing is: Are we really willing to get out there and fight? And I think health care has really given us a chance to do that,” Warren said.

So, as Sanders rolls out his Medicare-for-all bill, two fights begin: one between Democrats and Republicans, another between Democrats and Democrats.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The post has been updated. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on September 13, 2017.

This segment aired on September 13, 2017.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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