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2009-08-20

Progressive Dems Refuse to Back Healthcare Reform Without Public Option

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We speak to Rep. Raul Grijalva, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, on the latest in the debate over healthcare reform. Grijalva has threatened to vote against any healthcare legislation that does not include a public health insurance option. He also recently co-wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, criticizing her for saying that the public option is not the essential element of comprehensive reform. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Grijalva, we’d like you to stay on with us, as we switch topics to talk —-

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: —-about the debate over healthcare reform.
You have threatened to vote against any healthcare legislation that doesn’t include a public option. You also recently co-wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius criticizing her for saying that the public option is not the essential element of comprehensive reform. Explain your position, along with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is the letter you signed onto.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, the public option, it, to us, is the last toehold we have left in this health reform debate, discussion, legislation, a toehold that begins to look at the issue of universality, begins to look at the issue of full coverage for the American people, and to lose that would be essentially to have $1 trillion that we give back to the same players, primarily private insurance and pharmaceuticals, to continue to do what they’re doing, to spiral healthcare costs out of control, to deny services, and to continue to expand the base of uninsured in this country from 49 million to 50, 52 [million], to continue to cost Americans — one of every five dollars is spent on healthcare, and yet we’re a nation that has so many people uninsured and so many people sick.

So, for us, after single payer was taken off the table, after other actions were taken, for us, as the progressive caucus, it became not only essential on a policy side, but on a political and moral side. For us, not to have a public option in there that is not weak, that is not just there as a paper tiger, but in fact has content and the opportunity to grow in the future, if that’s not there, then there is really no great motivation for us to be part of a team that passes health reform without it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s your response to those who say that there just aren’t the votes among Democrats in the Senate to pass a healthcare reform with a public option and that if the progressives in the House hold out, they will be, in essence, scuttling any chance for health reform this year?

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, the response to that is that, as a party, we’ve been running on the issue of healthcare reform now for decades. And here is an opportunity. And to, you know, allow one or two senators to manipulate what I believe is the best interest of the American people and the public opinion of the American people, for the sake of taking care of special interests, the insurance companies, I think is a huge step backwards.

If we think that — if the Democratic leadership feels that we are going to get a public backlash by passing health reform with a public option, the backlash regarding our weaknesses and our inability to deliver a healthcare reform without a public option is going to be greater, and it will do us more harm in the long run, in terms of a majority, than not doing a public option. And I think that is being completely misread.

And in terms of the progressives, as I’ve said, we’re not here to divide the party. We’re not here to embarrass this administration. We’re being consistent. We have, for years, said that this — most of our membership is single-payer advocates. We’ve compromised that point, to some, regrettably, but the point being now that we are at this point, and we are going to — we are trying to hold people consistent to their values.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Grijalva, it’s not only the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Richard Trumka, the likely next president of the AFL said at Netroots Nation that they’re going to draw a line in the sand, something Obama said the opposite of when he said he wouldn’t draw a line in the sand on a public plan.

But I wanted to play for you an excerpt of the Democratic congressman of Massachusetts, your colleague up north, Barney Frank’s recent town hall meeting in Dartmouth. This is a question he received from the audience.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Why are you continuing to support a Nazi policy, as Obama has expressly supported this policy? Why are you supporting it?

    REP. BARNEY FRANK: Let me —

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Why are you denying access to [inaudible] a real solution?

    REP. BARNEY FRANK: When you ask me that question, I am going to refer to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question.

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hitler didn’t start with the Jews.

    REP. BARNEY FRANK: On what planet do you spend most of your time? You want me to answer the question?

    AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes!

    REP. BARNEY FRANK: Yes, you stand there with a picture of the President defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase healthcare to the Nazis. My answer to you is, as I said before, it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. Trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to Congress member Barney Frank in one of his town hall meetings, Congress member Grijalva, and also get your response to, for example, one of the largest health insurers, UnitedHealthcare, the letter that just came out that they wrote to their employees, urging them to go to town hall meetings and protest.

REP. RAUL GRIJALVA: Well, with regard to Barney, I wish I would have been as quick as he was, in terms of responding to some of the town hall comments and ire that we’re putting up with. I thought it was an excellent response. And it points out some other things.

I mentioned in one town hall that, you know, part of the problem is, whether people want to say it or not, is the fact that much of the resentment is not over healthcare reform. It’s about who is president. It is about the policy direction that has shifted. It is about the fact that people fear, and that fear is being fed, and it’s being fed in a very organized, well- financed — United is a good example, urging their employees to go to town hall meetings and pretend that they’re just interested citizens and to be part of the process of basically providing an intimidation agenda, not letting other people speak. We’ve all experienced it. And I hope that my colleagues that have gone through this are not cowered by it and not intimidated by it.

This is a very — this is an organized, financed effort to undermine not only healthcare reform, but to begin to undermine any ability for this administration to get anything done, by questioning the legitimacy of the President and, more importantly, by questioning the legitimacy of anything that remotely looks like a change of direction in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Raul Grijalva, we want to thank you very much for being with us and for waking up very early, just having —-

REP. BARNEY FRANK: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —- flown into your district in Tucson, Arizona. He’s co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has just written a letter to the Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius, criticizing her for saying public option is not a central element to comprehensive reform. Congressional Progressive Caucus says they won’t sign on to a plan that doesn’t include a public option. Also, we will link to that and his letter to President Obama around pushing harder for the return of President Zelaya in Honduras.

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