John Conyers: House Health Care Bill Must Be Strengthened For His Support
On the same day President Barack Obama held a teleconference with Congressional members comprised of the Progressive, Black, Asian Pacific American and Hispanic Caucuses, a long time influential Democrat in Congress, John Conyers of Detroit, said he will not back the current House health care bill that passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in July, by a narrow 26 – 22 vote, unless the public option component is strengthened.
“I don’t see anything to brag about,” he told me in an interview that will air on Pacifica Radio’s national show Letters to Washington on September 8th.
Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives are hoping to vote on the proposal, H.R. 3200 introduced by Representative John Dingell of Michigan, this fall. The measure does have a public option called the “Public Health Insurance Program” meant to compete with the private health care insurance plans.
“I didn’t see any public option in that,” said Conyers. “If it exists at all, it’s too weak.”
The public option in H.R. 3200 has to meet the same benefit requirements and comply with the same insurance market reforms as private plans. It is also required to become financially self-sustaining and build up its own start up costs and contingency funds into its premium rates. To the chagrin for some on the left, the public option isn’t Medicare and wouldn’t be able to use Medicare’s purchasing power with prescription drugs and other health care products to bring down costs.
Numerous published reports indicate that in his teleconference with the Caucus leaders, President Obama asked how far the members were willing to compromise on the public option.
Co-chair of the Progressive Caucus Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) said in a written statement “Caucus leaders expressed absolute commitment to the idea of a robust public option, and said they expect it to be part of any health care reform legislation.”
Obama is likely to have the caucus leaders visit him in the White House for another meeting before the President gives his nationally televised address to a joint-session of Congress on Wednesday night.
“I don’t get it with President Obama,” Conyers told me. “I think his arithmetic is no less accurate than mine. We don’t have the votes without a strong public option. When you add all the progressive caucus, black caucus, Hispanic caucus, Asian Pacific Islander…we have the votes, 218.”
While a strong public option potentially could pass the House, even without any Republicans or disaffected Blue Dogs, it appears that even a “weak” public option could not get through the Senate. Democrats currently have a 59 – 40 majority, just one shy of a filibuster proof, but there are a number of centrist Democratic Senators who have indicated their opposition to a government run plan.
Last week Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska told his local paper the Lincoln Star Journal that a government approach to health care reform could cause negotiations in the Senate to implode. According to CBS, Nelson’s spokesperson says the public option in the House bill is too robust for the Senator to support. That means both Nelson and Conyers oppose the House bill, but obviously for different reasons.
Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has threatened to use a parliamentary procedure known as budget reconciliation that would allow him to bypass a filibuster to pass health care reform. However, this same procedure was also tossed around in the economic stimulus package debate earlier in the year and several centrist Democrats then said such an important issue needed to be fully deliberated and signaled they would not support the maneuver. It’s unlikely they would do so now.
However, with 44 years of legislative experience, John Conyers says he doesn’t believe the House should settle for anything less than a “strong” public option in order to accommodate the Senate.
“If you don’t pass it in the House, the Senate doesn’t have to worry about it,” he said. “If we pass it in the House, [then] there will even be a larger struggle in the Senate…that his how good legislation is made.”
Conyers said a similar legislative struggle occurred in the creation of both Social Security and Medicare. The Representative is the author of another health care bill, H.R. 676, that would create a single payer system that its supporters call “Medicare for All.”
“My measure is the gold-standard,” he said, “but we only have 86 members standing tall with me.”
Though Conyers’ single-payer measure has been dismissed from the onset by the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders, Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) last week requested the Congressional Budget Office to provide a cost estimate for the single-payer bill. Proponents say it will educate Congress how broken the health care system is and show that a single-payer model will save the country $350 billion dollars a year.
Weiner also announced that he will introduce H.R. 676 as an amendment to the health care legislation, marking the first time that a single payer bill will have been voted on by Congress.
Mitch Jeserich is a seasoned political journalist and the executive producer of KPFA’s Morning Show.
In this interview John Conyers also said that his House Judiciary Committee will investigate former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney about the justification for the Iraqi invasion and for torture. You can hear the interview on Pacifica Radio’s Letters to Washington on-line at kpfa.org on Tuesday September 8th at 1 pm eastern 10am pacific.