While Bernie Sanders readies a single-payer health care bill that the GOP is itching to attack, one of his Democratic colleagues is proposing a step toward that goal that could give cover to the party’s vulnerable incumbents.
Sen. Chris Murphy, a potential presidential contender, is working on legislation expected this fall that would let individuals and businesses buy into Medicare as part of Obamacare’s exchanges. As Sanders and other potential challengers to President Donald Trump flock to “Medicare for all,” embracing a top liberal priority before 2020, Murphy is taking a conspicuously more pragmatic approach designed to get Democrats closer to that lofty but potentially unobtainable goal.
In the process, it could give vulnerable Democrats loath to attach themselves to Sanders a more politically palatable alternative that still satisfies the party’s base.
The first-term senator is also raising his national profile by wading into the hot-button single-payer debate — though the Connecticut Democrat has tamped down talk that he might take on Trump in 2020. It’s not about competing with Sanders, Murphy says, but rather offering a complementary path toward the creation of a single-payer system.
“Bernie is setting a really important marker for where he and many people in our party think the health care system needs to be,” Murphy — one of the Affordable Care Act’s staunchest defenders since its earliest days — told POLITICO.
But, Murphy added, “We’re not going to pass a single-payer health care bill any time in the next few years. And so we need to have a conversation about how we get there.”
Murphy doesn’t have Sanders’ army of grass-roots supporters, and public endorsements of his bill are still forthcoming even as Sanders racks up prominent single-payer backers such as Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But Murphy has the advantage of rising-star status without the political target that Republicans have drawn on Sanders’ plan. In July, Republicans forced a Senate vote on the idea that all but four Democrats boycotted.
Republicans are preparing to wield Sanders’ single-payer plan as a cudgel against Democrats up for reelection next year in states that Trump carried, challenging them to get behind an idea that polls show attracts only about a third of Americans. The Murphy proposal could give those imperiled Democrats a more moderate fallback to get behind.
Murphy said he would begin with a resolution designed to build support for expanding the popular program before releasing legislation later this fall. Making Medicare more widely available, as he sees it, would pave the way for an effective “redesign” that prepares it to cover younger beneficiaries as part of a Sanders-style approach.
A Medicare buy-in “may not be as big a leap for the health care system as single-payer, but I think it’s a big, easy-to-understand, and super-popular idea,” Murphy said.
“I think we need to be in the business of communicating big, easy-to-understand ideas to people in a way that we didn’t in 2016,” he added. “Donald Trump had very dangerous ideas, but they were easy to get your head wrapped around. Hillary Clinton had very good ideas, but they were so obtuse that few understood them.”
Murphy followed that backhanded compliment of Trump with clear praise for Sanders: “There’s nobody better in our party than Bernie at communicating big, easy-to-understand ideas.”
Murphy said he may ultimately decide to sign onto Sanders’ single-payer bill, expected to emerge as soon as next week, and has spoken with the Vermont independent about potentially supporting his own proposal.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a friend of Murphy’s who partnered with him on the caucus’ successful messaging campaign against Obamacare repeal, is offering another complementary health care option that would create a Medicaid buy-in. Schatz, who has flatly ruled out any run in 2020, told POLITICO that he is already planning to co-sponsor Sanders’ bill and has secured Sanders’ support for his legislation.
“Of course, I like my idea the best — but I think they’re all good ideas,” Schatz quipped, adding: “We have to be serious-minded about policymaking, and so not everything should be a litmus test of your progressive purity. Sometimes the question is, ‘What’s going to provide the most coverage to the most people?’”
Many Democrats bristle at chatter that Sanders’ activist network might challenge any Democratic candidate, incumbent or otherwise, who doesn’t back the single-payer plan he wants at the forefront of the party’s agenda.
Echoing Schatz’s call to avoid purity tests, some liberals are getting behind Murphy’s proposal early as a bridge to Sanders’ vision.
“It’s hard to imagine a better way to make the case for Medicare For All than to give every American the ability to voluntarily buy insurance through Medicare, have millions of people opt in and love it, and tell their friends about it — resulting in millions more people opting in,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green.
“This is how we defeat right-wing scare tactics, win hearts and minds over time, and put Republicans on defense as they oppose expanding to every American one of the most popular programs in existence.”
Whether red state Democrats embrace Murphy’s approach remains to be seen, but some are clearly skeptical of a partywide single-payer push. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he’s open to examining the idea as one of multiple options.
“I think we’re a long, long ways from the single-payer debate,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who faces a tough reelection race next year. “I still think the best thing we could do is fix what we’ve got. And I don’t think it would take much effort to do that.”
As the GOP push to repeal Obamacare fades and Washington’s attention shifts to a potentially bipartisan health care deal, however, Murphy is betting that now is the time for Democrats to get bold about their long-term plans to cover more Americans.
“And there’s a number of different ways to get there,” he said. “But I think as a party it’s important for us to make it clear that the Affordable Care Act is working, but there’s still a ways to go before we get to our goal of universal coverage.”
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