In praise of Joe Lieberman
A Democrat and former colleague rises to defend the Connecticut senator
By Bob Kerrey
New York Daily News
Thursday, December 17th 2009
The knives are out - yet again - for Joe Lieberman.
By declaring his intention to filibuster any health care bill that includes an expansion of Medicare, the Democrat-turned-Independent U.S. senator from Connecticut has provoked an angry backlash from liberals in his former party.
Some, like ex-Democratic chairman Howard Dean, have called on Democrats to kill the bill, go back to a more liberal reform plan, and push that through with 50 votes if necessary. Some lawmakers in Lieberman's home state have even suggested that he be recalled from office.
My own view is that Lieberman should be thanked by Democrats. Because on both the merits and the politics, Lieberman is leading his former party - and the Congress as a whole - in precisely the right direction.
It is true, Lieberman has reversed himself on the value of a Medicare buy-in for 55- to 64-year-old Americans. Until recently, he supported the idea. Now, his opposition - coming on the heels of a pledge to filibuster any bill including the public option - creates the appearance that he's moving the goalposts or trying to sink the chances for reform altogether.
But look closer and you'll see the wisdom in his evolution.
Lieberman is saving the Democratic majority from their apparent willingness to expand Medicare just as the demographic tsunami of 77 million baby boomers begins to cash in their $11 trillion claim on the program.
Medicare is already our largest and most expensive federal entitlement. It is already growing at more than $50 billion a year. It doesn't need to get bigger - not now, as deficits, debt and borrowing costs rise by the day.
Yet the Senate provision to which Lieberman objects would expand Medicare by decreasing the age of eligibility and adding a new non-health care payment for long-term care. Deceptively, this is actually scored by the Congressional Budget Office as a $70 billion savings - because premium inflows would exceed benefits for the first 10 years. But that state of affairs won't last; both new entitlements are likely to prove pricey to taxpayers over time.
At the same time, by moving the bill toward a consensus product, Lieberman is putting the Republican minority on the spot - giving moderates the chance to prove they truly care about the moral tragedy of tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford health insurance.
Consider: Even without the public option or the Medicare buy-in, if this bill is passed and signed into law, 94% of all Americans will have health insurance. There will be tighter controls on Medicare spending with greater emphasis on quality outcomes and preventive care. There will be greater opportunities for small businesses to provide meaningful insurance coverage for their employees.
If the GOP says "no" to all that, they will pay a price at the polls.
I am very sympathetic to every member of Congress. Health care is the most challenging of issues. It is large. It is complicated. It is emotional.
All of us who have spent any time with the issue have strong opinions on what needs to be done. I'd prefer to break the link with employment. I'd prefer creating a national health care system that uses the private sector to make payments. I'd prefer a system that is transparent to consumers on the question of cost.
But I'm fully aware that my preferences amount to a political fantasy. So, my challenge - and the challenge for all of us with strong views on the issue - is to get over our fantasies and support something that will make things better rather than worse.
Bob Kerrey, president of the New School, was a Democratic U.S. senator from Nebraska from 1989-2001.