Capital Briefs August 24, 2009

WOULD MEDICARE PASS IF PROPOSED TODAY? “Broad distrust of government — which was not evident in the 1960s — is an important reason why Americans are reacting so differently to healthcare reform in 2009 than they did in 1965,” concluded Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut last week. Pew Research looked back at polling when Medicare was passed in 1965 and noted that the Gallup Poll found 63% support among voters nationwide for compulsory health insurance for the elderly financed out of increased Social Security taxes and only 28% of voters against. Pew also pointed out that the Harris Poll at the time showed similar levels of support and, by 46% to 36%, voters said they preferred “medical care for the aged funded by Social Security taxes over a plan of expanded private health insurance.” These figures have changed dramatically, with a Pew Research survey before the healthcare debate began this year showing 45% of voters concerned about government’s getting too involved in healthcare and a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July showing 54% worrying Congress and the President will pass a bill that will not be good for them.

NO PUBLIC OPTION, NO LABOR MUSCLE: That’s what Rich Trumka, heir-apparent to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, told congressional Democrats last week. The onetime United Mine Workers president and current AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer told the Huffington Post website that the labor organization is drawing a line in the sand and that members of Congress who don’t support the public option in the healthcare bill should not take anything for granted. “We’ll look at every one of their votes,” Trumka said. “If they’re against the Employee Free Choice Act [card check], if they’re against healthcare for that reason [public option], I think it will be tough for them to get support from working people.” As for any plan that emerges from the Senate Finance Committee without a public option and without taxes on more expensive healthcare packages, Trumka left no question that the AFL-CIO will oppose the measure. Various liberal members of Congress have also said they will not support any bill without the public option and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean predicts that Democratic congressmen who vote against the public option run the risk of a primary challenge next year.

NO TO DOMA, SAYS OBAMA: Although tradition has it that the Justice Department defends acts of Congress when they are challenged in court, the Obama Justice Department and the President himself are making it clear they aren’t big on defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Earlier this year, a suit was filed against DOMA, which denies benefits to domestic partners of federal employees and permits states to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states. DOMA passed Congress and was signed by President Clinton in 1996. After government lawyers filed a dense brief in June that included the statement that heterosexual marriage is “the traditional and universally recognized form,” the Human Rights Campaign and other gay groups made their anger known to the White House. In the follow-up brief filed last week, the Justice Department omitted the controversial allegation. In addition, Obama himself issued a statement that he supported repeal of DOMA and would “examine and implement measures that will help extend rights and benefits to [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] couples under existing law.”

CHANGE LAW AGAIN TO APPOINT SENATOR, SAYS KENNEDY: In a letter to Democratic leaders of the Massachusetts legislature last week, ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) urged them to change state law so that Democratic Gov. DeVal Patrick could appoint a new senator should a vacancy occur. Obviously acknowledging his own mortality as he battles brain cancer, the 77-year-old Kennedy wrote that it is “vital” his state have “two voices speaking for the needs of its citizens and two votes in the Senate during the approximately five months between a vacancy and an election.” The governor of Massachusetts actually had that power until 2004, when the Democratic-run legislature — obviously fearing that then-Gov. Mitt Romney would appoint a fellow Republican to replace Democratic Sen. John Kerry if Kerry was elected President that year — changed the law to the present mechanism of a special election within five months of a vacancy.

MCCONNELL vs. MCCAIN-FEINGOLD (AGAIN): Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will be permitted to intervene in the all-star Supreme Court hearing next month on the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The high court said that McConnell, whose initial suit against the legislation led to the 2003 decision upholding key portions of McCain-Feingold, should be included in the arguments about whether it should overturn that decision. Hearings will begin on September 9 in Citizens United vs. the FEC, in which the court will re-examine the constitutionality of McCain-Feingold’s provision limiting unions and corporations from using their general treasuries to influence elections.