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2009-12-21

Health Bill Passes Key Senate Hurdle; Legislation Restricts Abortion Funding, Stripped of Public Option, Medicare Expansion

Guests

Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. He is the author of three books. His most recent is Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.

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The Senate took a big step toward passing its sweeping healthcare bill early today. Shortly after 1:00 a.m., the Senate voted 60-40 along party lines to break a Republican filibuster and approve a motion to move the legislation to final passage later this week. The legislation has no public option, no expansion of Medicare eligibility, and includes restrictions on the use of federal funding for abortions. We speak with Salon.com blogger, Glenn Greenwald. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate took a big step toward passing its sweeping healthcare bill early today. Shortly after 1:00 a.m., the Senate voted 60 to 40 along party lines to break a Republican filibuster and approve a motion to move the legislation to final passage later this week. Two more procedural votes will be needed before the Senate can vote on the bill itself, now scheduled for Christmas Eve.

The vote followed twelve hours of debate Sunday that the New York Times has described as one of the most bitter in memory. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of needlessly holding up the bill.

    SEN. HARRY REID: This is not about partisanship or about procedure, and everyone knows we’re here at 1:00 in the morning because of my friends on the other side of the aisle. For them to say with a straight face, and I noticed some of them didn’t have that straight face, that we’re here because of us is without any foundation whatsoever, and everyone knows that.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Arizona Senator John McCain said Republicans would fight to keep the bill from going forward.

Democrats were able to shut down the Republican filibuster after their last holdout. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson agreed to a compromise ensuring federal funds would not be used to pay for abortions and sending extra healthcare money to his home state. Last week, under pressure from independent Senator Joe Lieberman, Democrats abandoned both a proposal to expand Medicare eligibility as well as any type of public option. The compromises have angered some liberal Democrats.

Speaking on MSNBC’s Meet the Press, former Vermont governor and Democratic chair Howard Dean urged Democrats to shelve the bill.

    HOWARD DEAN: We have committed, in this last week of unseemly scrambling for votes, we have committed to go down a path in this country where private insurance will be the way that we achieve universal healthcare. That means we’re going to have a thirty-year battle with the insurance industry every time when we try to control costs and try to get them to do things. It is not a coincidence, David Gregory, that insurance company stocks, health insurance company stocks, hit a fifty-two-year high on Friday. So, they must know something that the rest of us don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate bill, once completed, must be reconciled with the bill passed by the House last month. There are substantial differences between the two, including the House plan to have a public option.

For more, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and the political and legal blogger for Salon.com.

Glenn, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what happened in the early hours of today at 1:00. What exactly is the bill that the Senate has passed?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, basically, it’s a bill that has been crafted in order to win the approval, first and foremost, of the health insurance industry, of the pharmaceutical industry, and then Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, the conservative Democrats in the Senate. And it essentially was a success in that it attracted sixty Democratic votes in order to break a Republican filibuster and to pass a bill that essentially mandates that all Americans buy private health insurance. It provides subsidies to some of them, but to a large number of Americans who are quite poor and will have difficulty buying these products, it essentially forces them, on their own, under penalty of law, to purchase health insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, go further here. I mean, you have people like Howard Dean, who is a doctor, former governor of Vermont, former head of the DNC, who said scrap this. You have the rage of Senator Feingold, who says it’s the Obama administration that has not supported a public option.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, the whole point of the public option originally was that if you’re going to mandate that people buy health insurance, then it is only a legitimate and moral thing to do if you actually provide them with a public-run program, so that the health insurance industry, which is notorious for gouging people and for engaging in all sorts of nefarious business practices, can’t use the mandate to essentially get 30 million new customers and then gouge them for profits while providing them with virtually no services.

And the argument of Howard Dean and others is that this bill actually does more harm than good. The argument is not, well, since it’s not pure enough ideologically or it’s not perfect, it should be defeated; the argument is that it actually does more harm than good, because it reinforces the monopoly status of the private healthcare industry and, at the same time, forces huge numbers of Americans, many of whom will not be able to afford it, to buy products that are inadequate and that they do not want. It perpetuates the very system that supposedly was the impetus in the first place for healthcare reform to pass.

And I think, you know, one of the things that has been most disturbing about this process is that it was clear from the start that the people who were going to craft this legislation were the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. They’re the people with whom the President and his top aides were meeting all year long in the White House. They got caught engaging in all kinds of agreements that violated Obama’s core — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We seem to love lost Glenn’s audio. Let’s see, Glenn, if you can hear us, we’re going to try to get you on the telephone, if we’re not able to hear you via the audio stream. Let me try one more time. Glenn, are you there?

GLENN GREENWALD: I’m here. Can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, good, good. Continue with what you were just saying, yes.

GLENN GREENWALD: So, I was saying that the President got caught engaging in these agreements that were negotiated in secret with the pharmaceutical industry to do things like ban the re-importation of drugs from Canada, which was a central prong of the Democratic Party’s reform efforts. When it came time to try and get cheaper drug products for Americans, he agreed that there would be no negotiations for bulk prices with the pharmaceutical industry, when the government is the largest purchaser of those products, which Obama and the Democrats had been criticizing the Republicans for having done.

And you clearly saw that the President, while making public statements being in support of the public option, all along was working against the public option in private. Rahm Emanuel spent all year long saying that there would be no public option in the ultimate bill. They had — they were touting triggers from the very start. And it was clear that the healthcare industry was quite satisfied with the way in which this was proceeding, and that’s why they barely campaigned against it at all. They sent huge amounts of lobbyists to safeguard their interests, because they knew that the final product would not include a public option.

And I think Russ Feingold’s statements are critical, because the White House misled a lot of people into believing that they were behind the public option, when the reality was that the only thing that they cared about was making sure that the healthcare — the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry stayed satisfied with the bill, which meant stripping out all of the provisions that would provide real competition and real reform.

And, of course, you see Democratic senators supporting the bill, but that’s because they know that without a bill, the Democrats and President Obama will be harmed politically. But progressives who have followed this, led by Dr. Dean, have been very clear that, on balance, this reinforces and worsens a corrupt system of insurance.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you see change proceeding from here, Glenn Greenwald? Will this ensure that there will not be a public option for a long time? Or do you think very quickly that will be legislated when people realize the amount of money that’s being poured into the insurance industry right now, requiring everyone get insurance?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I think the Democrats are at the peak of their power. I think that’s a pretty strong consensus. They have two-thirds of the Senate. They have a huge majority in the House. And, of course, they had a president all year long whose popularity was quite high; that’s no longer true.

And so, if the President was not behind the public option from the start, I don’t see any time in the near future when there will ever be real competition that’s permissible with the private health insurance industry. That’s what this bill has done, is it signaled to industry, generally, that the approach of the Obama administration will be to strengthen and give them even more of they want — of what they want, give them even more political power, in exchange for some very small concessions that he can then tout as progressive progress.

So, yeah, there will be some time in the near future — remember, many of these provisions don’t actually kick in until 2013, 2014, so it’s going to be a long time away before the dust really settles with all of this. But I think that is going to be an important part of this, is that there will be large numbers of Americans, including many young voters and people who supported Obama, who suddenly find themselves compelled to write large checks out of their income to Aetna and Blue Cross and Blue Shield in exchange for the same inadequate and unsatisfactory and unprotective policies that led them not to want health insurance in the first place.

And the solution ought to be what you said, which is, at some point we’ll have a public option. But given the dynamic of how Washington works, even more than ever now, I don’t see how the wishes of private industry will ever be dispensed with and have real competition. If it doesn’t happen now, when would it ever happen?

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, talk about Senator Nelson and the issue of abortion in this Senate legislation.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, that, I think, is one of the few unresolved issues. I think it’s extremely clear that this bill is not going to get better in reconciliation between the House — or in conference between the House and the Senate, because the senators have already said that the House has no right to make changes, or they won’t have sixty votes in the Senate. So I think it’s going to stay the same.

I think the abortion issue, though, is one of the few unresolved issues, because there was a contingent of House Democrats who voted for this bill and whose votes were necessary, only on the condition that the very onerous restrictions on a woman’s right or ability to get health insurance to cover abortion was included, the one sponsored by Bart Stupak. And the provision inserted by Ben Nelson in exchange for his vote is slightly less onerous, but it’s still, according to the National Organization of Women, who has been very supportive of the President’s agenda, in general, is one of the worst restrictions on abortion and one of the worst attempts to stigmatize abortion in several decades.

And as onerous as it is, the Senate version is, which basically requires that any woman who wants to have abortion covered by her health insurance plan essentially have to pay for it separately, write two checks, one for regular abortion and then an abortion rider, which leaves a paper trail of women who want to be covered by abortion, who — which stigmatizes healthcare plans that cover abortion, that is our — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: Looks like we lost —-

GLENN GREENWALD: —- are now saying that they want the whole thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Glenn. Glenn, make your last point again. We just lost you for a moment there.

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure, sure. As onerous as that Senate version is, creating that demonization on healthcare plans that cover abortion, forcing women to write out a second check for an abortion rider, it’s actually less onerous than the House version, and yet many of the House Democrats have said that the Nelson provision is not onerous enough, and unless it reverts back to the Stupak amendment, the far more restrictive provision on abortion, that they won’t vote for the healthcare — the final healthcare plan. So that’s one way that this bill could get even worse, is if the House Democrats prevail and follow through on their threat not to vote for it in the absence of even greater restrictions on abortion.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Glenn Greenwald, give us the timetable of what is going to happen next after this 1:00 a.m. vote.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, at this point, what essentially will happen is that the House and the Senate, which passed different versions of this bill, will now get together and try and create in conference a bill that each of the conference leaders agree upon. It’s widely assumed that that version will be extremely similar to the Senate version because of the threats on the parts of Senator Nelson and others that no bill will pass the Senate unless it’s essentially identical. And then the bill will then return to the House, where it will have to pass, and then that same version will return to the Senate, where, once again, it will need sixty votes. And assuming that it’s essentially similar, the idea is that it will pass both houses of Congress and be to President Obama sometime in January, before the State of the Union address, for him to sign into law.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you for being with us, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com, author of three books — his most recent, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics.

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