By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Let the fratricide begin!
Michael Moore, in town for the premiere of his new movie, stopped by a rally at the offices of Public Citizen on Tuesday to deliver a stark warning to any congressional Democrats who would dare oppose a government-run insurance plan as part of health-care legislation.
"I and a lot of other people have every intention of removing you from Congress in the next election if you stand in the way of health-care legislation that the people want," the beefy filmmaker roared. "We will come to your districts, and we will work against you, first in the primary, and if we have to, in the general election. . . . You think we're going to go along with you just because you're Democrats? You should think again!"
As it happens, Senate Democrats were across town at that very moment defying Moore. Sen. Max Baucus, a Montanan not susceptible to Moore's charm, was leading an effort to exclude the public option from the health-care legislation.
"My job is to put together a bill that gets 60 votes," the Finance Committee chairman said. "Now, I can count, and no one has been able to show me how we can count up to 60 votes with a public option in the bill. . . . I fear that if this provision is in the bill as it comes out of this committee, it will jeopardize real, meaningful, health-care reform."
The panel held a vote: Baucus, 15; Moore, 8. Later, another vote on another version of a public option was held: Baucus, 13; Moore, 10. Sorry, Michael, but Baucus won't be up for reelection until 2014.
Democrats on the Finance Committee, for the most part, couched their differences in polite exchanges. But there was no disguising the raw schism the bill has created among Democrats.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), sponsor of one of the public option proposals, was discussing the House version of the legislation when Baucus interrupted him. "Let me just split hairs here, Senator, but to be accurate there is no House bill," the chairman said.
"I understand," Rockefeller went on, "but in the parlance of Congress, they passed out some --"
"No, they didn't."
Seconds later, Baucus interrupted Rockefeller again, this time over the pronunciation of the name of a committee aide, Yvette Fontenot.
"We pronounce your last name in very different ways," Baucus said to the aide, requesting the correct pronunciation.
"It's Fahn-ten-oh," Fontenot said.
"Ha!" exulted Rockefeller, who had been correct.
"Very good," conceded Baucus.
"See, we're moving rapidly," needled Rockefeller.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the panel's ranking Republican, tried to ease the tension. "If it was French, it would be Phone-t'noh," he offered.
Republicans were already certain to vote against any form of government-run health care, so their role consisted mostly of entertainment. Pro-gun Sen. John Ensign (Nev.) blurted out that the number of preventable deaths in the United States would be lower than it is in Europe "if you take out gun accidents and auto accidents." Later, Ensign, whose sexual indiscretions made news recently, gave a sermon on "healthy behavior."
The Democrats usually would have traded insults with the Republican, but this time they had to bicker among themselves. Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) asked Rockefeller if he could respond to a charge that his proposal would disrupt the market.
"Yes, I could, but I am not going to," Rockefeller answered. The Floridian rephrased his question, and Rockefeller repeated: "I maintain my answer, not to be unresponsive but fundamentally to be unresponsive because I want to focus on my amendment."
"Okay, but my question is about your amendment," Nelson pointed out.
"I will not answer that question," Rockefeller answered.
Rockefeller soon became snippy with Sen. Kent Conrad, a North Dakota Democrat who -- sadly for Moore -- won't face reelection until 2012. Rockefeller scolded Conrad for bringing up his proposal to create nonprofit health cooperatives instead of government insurance.
"I didn't bring it up -- I responded to a question," Conrad protested.
"Well, in the eye of the beholder," Rockefeller grumbled.
"No, let's be clear: I did not," Conrad said.
Next Rockefeller fought with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who said the West Virginian's proposal would include a plan administrator. "Not true," Rockefeller broke in. "That's wrong." After an aide whispered in his ear, Rockefeller backed down.
Had Michael Moore been invited to address the committee, he probably would have told the Democrats, as he told Public Citizen, that they are "beholden to these health insurance companies, the hospital corporations, the hospital chains."
Rockefeller, who with a net worth north of $60 million is less skeptical of capitalism than Moore, argued to his colleagues that "Adam Smith would have cooked up this amendment." To Baucus, he said: "I understand the chairman has a responsibility to count votes and all the rest," but "I don't want to get to a point where process makes more difference than people."
After several minutes, Baucus broke in with a weary voice. "Senator Rockefeller?"
Rocky, ignoring his fellow Democrat, kept on talking.