YouTube video

David Swanson: Will progressives shoot down a health-care bill that lacks a public option

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. Health-care reform—well, how much reform is there going to be? It seems to be now let’s just pass the bill and hope for the best. Now joining us to talk about what is happening with the new legislation is David Swanson. He joins us from Virginia. Thanks for joining us, David.


JAY: I should give you the plug. David is with and has a new book out. Tell us about your book, David.

SWANSON: It’s called Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union, which is somewhat self-explanatory, I hope. But get a copy.

JAY: So talk about what’s happening with health-care reform. Howard Dean came out very strongly. Not only did he say vote “no” to his colleagues in Congress, but he also said in the next election campaign he won’t be campaigning for President Obama. That’s a pretty tough position.

SWANSON: It’s wonderful. It’s the only consistent, morally decent position he could take at this point. But it’s remarkable. It’s the sort of thing that people in Washington do not do, and that certainly Congress members do not do. And I’m cheering for him and for those who are stepping out along with him, including many bloggers and activists who have been there for months ahead of him, but also groups like that are now coming out and saying vote no, oppose this thing, and make it better or block it, which is the only decent thing that can be done [inaudible]

JAY: We’re hearing that from the labor movement. Trumka from the AFL-CIO hasn’t said vote “no”, but his public rebuke of Obama was rather strong.

SWANSON: Rather strong, but I like it when there’s action tied to words. And so for the labor movement to be saying this bill is bad, we don’t like this bill, we’re going to criticize this bill quite harshly, but without saying what Howard Dean has said—vote no, block it, kill it, do not support those who support it—without that sort of statement, it’s rather weak, if not verging on hypocritical, because the labor movement for so long has been such a servant of the Democratic Party that it’s unimaginable to anyone that the labor movement would turn against a bill that was labeled a Democratic bill, much less back primary challengers, or independents, or Republicans. And so to get to that point would be remarkable.

JAY: Well, the counterargument—. They say behind the scenes they’ve been extremely strong. But the counterargument goes that if this looks like a great defeat for President Obama, then it mortally wounds all the rest of his agenda in terms of the economy and jobs stimulus, any labor legislation they were hoping to get through. What do you make of that, that there is a point at which—that you go with what there is, because the alternative is worse?

SWANSON: Well, in the not very long term, I think passing a bill that’s guaranteed to fail may be worse, including for the labor movement. I mean, here’s a legislation that’s going to kick in some years down the road, is guaranteed not to fix the problem, is guaranteed not to rid us of the private insurance companies, not do anything to restrain their constantly upping the costs. We are not going to solve the health-care crisis that is going to continue to worsen. And then the blame is going to be put on the Congress and the Democrats for having done something, rather than, more accurately, for having failed to seriously [inaudible]

JAY: So in terms of the move of Dean and and the critique that—perhaps in your mind not strong enough—coming from the labor unions, but is this actually a push to force the Democrats in the Senate to use the process that would allow them to pass something with 51 votes? And tell us a bit about what that option is.

SWANSON: Well, there are a couple of options, at least. One is that 50 or 51 senators any day could simply throw out the filibuster rule. That would be the obvious solution. There’s nothing more anti-democratic than maintaining a rule that blocks all decent legislation and allows senators representing 11 percent of Americans to block all legislation. There’s no excuse for that. Another alternative that’s been thrown around is to do a reconciliation process, which possibly could and possibly couldn’t squeak this one bill through, but would leave the same problem in place for all other bills on all other issues, including those like the right to organize that the labor movement may be keeping in the back of their head, although they’ve certainly stopped pushing for that.

JAY: To undo the filibuster rule, don’t they need 60 votes?

SWANSON: Absolutely not. They’ve never needed it before. It’s been changed several times. We got through much of US history without having it all at all. Since it’s been created it’s been changed a number of times, and it—.

JAY: But does 51 votes change—with 51 votes they can change the filibuster rule? Can’t they get filibustered on changing the filibuster rule?

SWANSON: No, they need not, and it has been done before and could be done again. And the last time it was changed, it was changed with 51 votes, and there’s no reason that they couldn’t do that, except that they don’t want to, that they consider it more important to get along and uphold the rules of the Senate than to save lives. This is the way that priorities are set in the United States Senate. We just watched Senator Feingold refuse to join a filibuster against war funding, which he supposedly opposes, because it was Republicans filibustering the war funding. And the Republicans were filibustering the war funding precisely to be mean and nasty and stall and block up the health-care bill process. So there are different rules, depending which party you’re in. But, you know, if there were people in the Senate representing Americans and the majority viewpoint, the filibuster rule would be thrown out.

JAY: Now, you’re in touch with a lot of progressive members of Congress, I guess to some extent the Senate. Do you think there is a force big enough to stop the bill, to vote “no”?

SWANSON: Oh, yes, absolutely. No question. I’m not betting that it will happen or that it won’t happen; I’m advocating that it should happen, that we should block this bill in order to have a better one. I mean, this is what the Blue Dogs do routinely, this is what Republicans do, this is what any caucus that takes action does in Congress in either house: they block a bill until it’s improved to the point where they consider it passable, and then they support it. We had 57 Democrats in the House write a letter last summer to Nancy Pelosi, saying they would oppose any bill as bad as the one that 55 out of those 57 just turned around and supported in the house.

JAY: Now, we did a story on this. So, I mean, is there any likelihood they’re going to stick to their guns?

SWANSON: It’s possible. It’s helpful that Howard Dean and his organization, and MoveOn and other groups, and the progressive blogosphere, and the activist community are turning against this. So what would help a lot would be if the single-payer advocates turned against this bill. And you would think that went without saying, and yet most of the groups that have been pushing for real health-care reform, a single-payer solution, have refused thus far to be for or against a bill that would make things dramatically worse, that would empower the system they are trying to undo, which makes no sense to me.

JAY: Why won’t they take a position on it? And who you are you talking about?

SWANSON: Well, I’m talking about the Physicians for a National Health Program, and California Nurses Association, and Progressive Democrats of America (on whose board I sit), and many other organizations that have been leading the fight for a real health-care solution, that they were so focused on “national single-payer now”, impossible as that was—although they were right to include it in the debate, and Howard Dean and others have a lot of blame coming to them for having excluded that and having narrowed the debate from the start, credit them as we might now for having stuck to that weakened position. But they were so focused, these single-payer groups, on national single-payer that they’ve refused to even push for state single-payer language in this bill. They want no part of this bill, even to the point of opposing it. What would be helpful would be if all of those groups came out now in opposition and said, “Vote ‘no’, vote ‘no’, unless at the very least state single-payer language is put back in.” What was passed in the House by Congressman Kucinich, what could be included in the Senate bill—[Ron] Wyden is proposing various state language that would allow states out of an individual mandate if they guarantee they’ll put enough people into private health insurance, as if the federal government should be requiring that states force their citizens to give money to corporations. We have an opportunity, I think Senator Sanders has an opportunity, to put state single-payer language in there so that there was something good in this bill.

JAY: Where is Sanders on voting “no”?

SWANSON: He’s said he’s not committed to voting “yes” yet, but nobody, nobody takes that threat seriously. Progressives never follow through. And if you need proof of that, look at what happened when the Republicans asked—or Senator Coburn asked for a reading of Sanders’ single-payer amendment, which was going to take 12 hours, and Senator Reid told Senator Sanders to withdraw the amendment to avoid that wasted 12 hours of reading it on the floor, and he said, “Yes, sir,” and did so. That ought to be an indication of where he stands in terms of fighting to the death for a better bill. But anything is possible. And we certainly should be encouraging Senator Sanders to refuse to back a bill that makes things worse than they are now.

JAY: What about Al Franken? What position’s he taking?

SWANSON: Oh, I’m certain he’ll vote for it. I have no doubt he’ll vote for it. I haven’t seen any indication otherwise. The two senators who are in question, I think, are Nelson and Lieberman, Nelson around the issue of abortion and Lieberman around whatever issue he picks that he thinks will make most people mad at him each day. They are the ones that people have doubts about.

JAY: So if people want a strong public option and they want that in their health-care reform, which should they be telling their senators right now?

SWANSON: They should be telling their senators to vote “no” on this bill, to publicly commit to opposing it until a strong public option is put in there.

JAY: And doesn’t there have to be a commitment to push for a 51-vote Senate? Anything short of that, they’re right back in the same position again.

SWANSON: Well, if you would throw out the filibuster rule, or possibly if you go with this reconciliation process, then it’s a whole different calculation and you can improve the bill in a number of ways.

JAY: But anything short of that, they’re right back in the same paralysis.

SWANSON: Well, anything short of that and you’re stuck with having to win over Republicans or Lieberman or Nelson or somebody to get to a supermajority of 60 because we have minority rule in the Senate.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, David.

SWANSON: My pleasure.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate button, please.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

David Swanson's books include: War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012).  He is the host of  Talk Nation Radio. He has been a journalist, activist, organizer, educator, and agitator.  Swanson helped plan the nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in 2011.  Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. He blogs at and and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization Swanson also works on the communications committee of Veterans For Peace, of which he is an associate (non-veteran) member. Swanson is Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet.