Bold Polis strategy to pass a public option gains momentum

Colorado Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis’s bold move to pass health reform legislation that would include a public health insurance option has gained significant support in the week since he first began circulating among lawmakers and on the web a letter that he co-authored with Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree outlining the idea. Polis sent the letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today with the signatures of 120 Representatives attached.

The plan aims to guard against any watered-down legislation coming from the Senate, where Democrats seem poised to concede to Republican demands in the wake of the GOP Scott Brown Senate victory in Massachusetts.


Polis is urging Democratic Senators to revisit the Senate version of the legislation, not to thin its provisions, but to add a public option and then to pass the bill through the process known as reconciliation.

Letter signers included six so-called Blue Dog conservative Democrats. A coalition of progressive advocacy groups has been leading efforts to back the effort by urging citizens to call their Representatives. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and Credo Action were behind the campaign that saw tens of thousands of phone calls placed to local House Democrats from constituents asking them to sign the letter.

“This letter states loud and clear that the public option is gaining momentum and is alive and well in the eyes of the American public,” said Polis in a release Wednesday.

“Our job now is to convince Washington what the American people already know—that a public option is essential to challenging the insurance companies and ensuring the choice and competition we need to drive prices down.”

A freshman letter

So far, it looks like none of the Colorado delegation has signed onto the plan, and Polis spokesperson Lara Cottingham told the Colorado Independent that Polis has yet to speak directly with Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet about it.

Responses from some of the Colorado delegation suggest the letter may seem especially noteworthy to those unfamiliar with the ways of Washington.

Kristofer Eisenla, spokesman for veteran Hill operator Diana DeGette, noted that the First District Congresswoman, who is serving her seventh term, is a strong supporter of the public option. “She talks to members of leadership about this and many other issues, but rarely signs letters to the Speaker or Majority Leader in the Senate.”

Ben Marter, spokesman for Rep. Betsy Markey, likewise said the Fourth District Freshman Democrat was a strong supporter of the public option but that she has been busy working on her own health care initiative– an amendment she has written with Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello that would repeal the anti-trust exemption that presently benefits only health insurance companies, medical malpractice insurance companies and Major League Baseball.

In the letter to Reid, Polis argues that the legislation sent to the House by the Senate last year fails to please both conservative Democrats tied to anti-abortion restrictions on services and progressives tied to the public option. If health reform is to pass, the Senate needs to pick which bloc to woo, the progressive bloc or the conservative bloc. Through the reconciliation process, the Senate would need only 51 votes to pass a bill with a public option. Reconciliation is meant only to cover proposals that impact the budget, however, so drafting a bill that would seek to limit abortion doesn’t exactly fit. The public option does concern the budget directly, though, and Polis believes progressives have the votes to pass the bill in the House.

The phones lit up

Of course, leaning on the budget reconciliation process would deal a blow to bipartisanship, an operating ideal that has gained weight after the Brown victory and after the President’s State of the Union speech urging lawmakers to work less like campaigners and more like problem solvers. But reconciliation would certainly move the bill through the Senate and, if Polis is correct, lead to a strong victory for the kind of reform Democrats have said they have been fighting for over this past highly contentious year, one that they have said would guarantee real competition for the insurance industry and greater savings for individual Americans and for the country.

There’s certainly no guarantee the Majority Leader will read the letter or that he hasn’t been weighing a similar plan himself. Cottingham, however, said Polis’s office was surprised and cheered by the response the letter received among the public and among members of Congress in the past week and would have sent it earlier to Sen. Reid but waited as the number of signatories mounted.

“Progressive groups got a hold of the letter and saw what we were doing and the phones just lit up. I was getting emails myself asking me to convince my Representative to sign onto the letter.”

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, and Credo Action commissioned a Research 2000 poll last week on the Polis letter and the public option over the last two days of January. The pollsters called 600 unaffiliated voters randomly. The organizations released early data exclusively to the Colorado Independent that showed wide support for the public option here.

A first question asked:

Would you favor or oppose the national government offering everyone the choice of buying into a government administered health insurance plan — something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get — that would compete with private health insurance plans?

The respondents showed strong support. Eighty-five percent of Democrats agreed, 59 percent of Independents and 58 percent of respondents in swing Congressional District 4, represented by Democrat Betsy Markey, who has so far not signed onto the letter.

poll q1

A second question:

This past week, Colorado Congressman Jared Polis led the charge in the House of Representatives to add a public health insurance option into health care reform, resulting in over 70 other House members joining him on a public statement of support for the public option. Is this the kind of leadership you expect from those who represent Colorado, or do you disapprove of Polis’s actions?

Again the respondents showed strong support. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats agreed, 63 percent of Independents and 57 percent in Markey’s swing district.

poll q2

The organizations will be releasing additional results from their poll later this week.

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