As part of an attempt to return the Congressional debate to their domestic priorities, House Democrats plan to rally around key aspects of the massive health care proposal put forward by presidential hopeful and former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
Gephardt has spent months lobbying his colleagues on the merits of the plan, making the case for the proposal at the same time he worked with individual Members to gain their endorsements for his White House bid.
Democrats remain far from putting together a health plan of their own, but key leaders believe the Gephardt proposal achieves many of their goals: providing affordable insurance for all Americans and scaling back GOP tax cuts they believe are too large. Several top Democrats argued that turning up the volume on the need for universal health coverage can help the House minority win back favor with voters still high on a wartime president.
“Quite frankly, now is definitely the time Democrats need to be rallying behind this idea,” said one well-placed Democratic aide.
Congress returns to work this week after a two-week recess in which the Iraqi conflict continued to dominate headlines. Now that the war is winding down, House Democrats believe they have an opening to advance their agenda and turn attention back on health care, one of their core issues.
Several Democratic sources said it is highly unlikely the Democratic Caucus will adopt the Gephardt proposal in its entirety. However, they believe the former Minority Leader will find a large number of Members publicly backing the idea and pushing its provisions as part of their broader health care message.
“Members will support a plan like this, but not necessarily introduce legislation on it,” said Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), a Gephardt backer and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s a concept that’s based upon a presidential campaign. But I think you are going to see a lot of support. I think it’s a great idea.”
At the same time, however, sources said Democrats may find some rub as they try to work through the health care debate, given they are somewhat split on the magnitude of both tax cuts and health care costs. That’s why support for the ideas behind Gephardt’s plan is expected to come largely from the liberal wing of the party, while opposition is expected among fiscally conservative Democrats, sources said.
“A majority of Democrats think this is a very bold and positive step in the direction of Democrats having ideas on ways to deal with health care, and our party likes these kinds of bold, comprehensive solutions to problems,” said one senior Democratic aide.
But, the aide later added: “I don’t think it’s realistic to think the Caucus will be reacting to different presidential proposals this early in the process.”
Gephardt’s proposal calls for providing health insurance for all Americans by eliminating the Bush tax cuts in their entirety and putting in their place refundable tax credits for employers to provide health coverage for employees. It is estimated to cost $210 billion a year.
A House Democratic leadership aide said “people do support the idea” but are cautious because of the price tag that comes with it. The same staffer said Gephardt’s proposal has a “decent chance” of making its way into a broader Democratic Caucus health care plan, but it will have to be scaled back to gain support from a divided party.
“I don’t know where we’ll end up,” said the aide. “I don’t know whether we end up with his plan.”
Several senior Democratic sources said House leaders have yet to fully review details of Gephardt’s plan and are unready to publicly lend their support. But many of the larger goals mirror those that many senior Members have been supporting for some time, even before then-President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully sought universal health care in 1994.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t endorse the proposal, but through a spokesman said: “There isn’t a family in America today that isn’t facing the reality of a lack of access to affordable health care. Congressman Gephardt’s proposal is a bold step to addressing this pressing problem.”
On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders will host a health care forum designed to help the party begin developing a health care proposal beyond the prescription drug benefit initiative it already has put forth. Democrats have yet to set a timeline for developing a proposal.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), another Gephardt backer and national co-chairman of his presidential campaign, said while he supports the Gephardt proposal, he can’t gauge whether the Caucus overall will want to make it part of their agenda.
“I don’t know, I haven’t polled them,” he said.
Gephardt, who unveiled the initiative this week, began laying the groundwork for his plan late last year when he started speaking to Members about it. Those talks also included his pitch for endorsements of his 2004 White House campaign.
“He’s been talking with Members about this plan for a couple of months now,” Matsui said. “He indicated he’d be unveiling it in the spring when there was more attention on the presidential race, which there is now.”
Steve Elmendorf, a key Gephardt adviser, said while his boss has been talking to Members and wants their support for plan, the proposal isn’t one that could be implemented without a Gephardt White House. Elmendorf said Gephardt recognizes the importance of having Democratic lawmakers talking about and supporting the proposal, both in Washington and their districts.
Elmendorf argued Gephardt is working to direct a broader Democratic focus, saying: “This sends a good message about our priorities.”