Smelling blood in the water as Democrats made contradictory statements about what a Senate health care reform bill might contain, Republicans spent Tuesday pushing back against a possible compromise — non-profit health insurance cooperatives, an idea that Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) had pushed for months before the debate centered on a Medicare-style “public option.” Inside the Senate and inside the conservative third-party groups that have been working against the White House, “co-ops” are being framed as an attempt to engineer a stealth government takeover of health care.
“It doesn’t matter what you call it,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told reporters on a Tuesday conference call. “They want it to accomplish something that Republicans are opposed to. That is the step towards government-run health care in the country. The president himself said you can imagine a cooperative meeting that definition of a public option.”
Kyl, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, took advantage of a political opening created by a rift between Democrats in Congress. Unlike a public plan, the co-ops idea remains, as one Senate GOP staffer told the Washington Independent, “nebulous.” What began as a trial balloon from Conrad, to facilitate the formation of consumer groups that could purchase health care plans at a lower cost, has not been fleshed out since then. In June, when Conrad proposed the concept, it was promoted as a way to get the votes of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, based on a model that had worked in very different industries. “The co-op model has proven very effective across many different models,” Conrad argued in a June interview with The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. “Ocean Spray in the cranberry business, and Land of Lakes in the dairy business, and Puget Sound [Health Alliance] in the health care business.”
Since then, Democrats have used the co-op concept as an out from the tougher aspects of the health care debate. Shortly after Conrad floated the idea in June, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said that the idea “doesn’t come close to satisfying anyone who wants a public plan,” could meet some of the Democrats’ goals if a $10 billion start-up fund was created to launch the co-ops. In July, President Obama told Time magazine that some sort of public plan could survive Senate negotiations even if the “public option” didn’t, because “in theory you can imagine a cooperative meeting that definition.”
That statement from the president, which didn’t draw much attention at the time, was the basis of Kyl’s argument that co-ops were a “Trojan Horse” for “government-run” health care. Republicans and conservative activists are mining other statements in that vein to build the case that co-ops would be no compromise at all, and they’re doing it quickly.
“Three months ago, I think you could have had a compromise on co-ops,” another Senate GOP aide told TWI. “Today? No, forget about it. I think both parties have gotten wise to how things work, and Republicans see this for the fig leaf that it really is.”
Senate Republicans are getting help from conservative media on defining the co-ops. On his syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh blasted the co-ops idea as a unconvincing cover-up for the Democrats’ real plan to nationalize health care. “These co-ops, like we’re too stupid to know what that’s all about,” Limbaugh said. “Co-op? Why don’t they just call them communes? Look, I know liberal lingo when I hear it. A co-op? Yeah, let’s go to the farmers market. Let’s go to the community garden! What, do they think we’re idiots?”
That’s the message coming from the groups and activists who have defined the political battlefield this month with noisy protests and speeches at congressional town hall meetings. “It is a trick by the Democrats,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, via email. “It’s a cosmetic change that’s not meaningful. It’s not in any way something that changes things for us. It’s something to try to give ‘moderate’/Blue Dog/terrified Democrats an excuse to support Obamacare.”
At a Tuesday meeting of conservative bloggers, held at the Heritage Foundation, Matt Kibbe, the president and CEO of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, speculated that “government-run co-ops” with mandates might have been what Democrats had wanted from the outset of the health care fight. “It’s possible that the so-called public option… has always been a disposable item in the legislation,” Kibbe said, “and what the proponents of government-run health care really wanted to do was throw it out there, have us all attack it, and go for the co-ops.”
According to Eric Odom, the web guru whose TaxDayTeaParty.com became an organizing and information hub for anti-tax rallies, “Tea Party” activists are primed to attack co-ops as another phase of a plan to take over health care. “I don’t anticipate that anyone in the free market movement can support this idea,” said Odom, whose group is readying for a nationwide bus tour to train conservative activists. “It’s a back door for government to get control of the [health care] system. The proposal you’ll get from Democrats is going to have boards made up of government officials. It’ll be the same thing as government run health care, except it won’t be owned by the government.”
A Senate GOP aide brushed aside the theory that a co-op compromise could bring Republican votes on board. “When [Sen. Chuck] Grassley (R-Iowa) says that he won’t vote for a bill that doesn’t have substantial Republican support, you can read that as him saying he won’t support the bill,” the aide told the Washington Independent. “The problem right now is that we have a large Democratic majority that Americans don’t trust. They don’t think something passed in this Congress would be helpful to them. We can start over two years from now, after we have a new Congress.”
In the shorter term, Republicans are working to brand “co-ops” as another toxic “public plan,” a scheme to take over health care. Appearing on Fox News Monday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) blasted the Democratic plan, “Now, they — they may try to call it a co-op. They can call it a public option. But you know they are all on record saying they want a single-payer government system. So, any Republican now that helps them pass a bill is helping them pass a government takeover of health care.”
At the Heritage Foundation, Kibbe warned conservative bloggers that even if congressional Democrats view the removal of the public plan as a defeat, conservatives have to be ready to defeat co-ops.
“We need to be careful,” said Kibbe, “not to declare victory when they throw the government-run option off the side.”
David Weigel is a politics reporter for the Washington Independent.
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