Seattle congressman Jim McDermott supports it. Washington senator Patty Murray wants it. So does President Barack Obama. So does the often conservative Seattle Times editorial page. So do 72 percent of Americans, according to a recent poll. So what's going on with Washington's junior senator, Maria Cantwell? Why doesn't she want Congress to include a public option—a new government-run health-care plan that will be available to everyone and will compete with private insurance companies to bring down costs—in its health-care-reform package?
"I don't think that's something we can get through the United States Senate," Cantwell told KUOW on June 22. It's an odd bit of circular logic: Because Cantwell can't yet count enough votes to pass the public option, she won't add her vote in favor of the public option—which, of course, makes it even harder to find enough votes to pass the public option.
What option does Cantwell prefer? She told KUOW's Steve Scher that she currently prefers the government-backed health-care-cooperative idea that's been floated in the Senate. The idea behind the co-op proposal—still somewhat nascent—is to create a whole bunch of small, federally chartered nonprofit health-care providers all over the country. (The idea was hatched to appeal to Republicans and Democrats from conservative states—which, by the way, Cantwell is not.) It wouldn't be a national plan administered from D.C., which would make it hard for conservatives to tag it as "socialized medicine," and it would embody certain ideas that conservatives like—local control, for example. But because of this, the cooperatives would lack the national economic mass and bargaining power to effectively compete with large private insurance companies. That's the whole point of the public plan: to create a national, nonprofit health-care provider that can effectively compete with private insurance companies and, as a result, lower costs for everyone.
As President Obama—who Cantwell endorsed—put it during a June 23 press conference: "The public plan, I think, is an important tool to discipline the insurance companies."
This isn't the first time that Cantwell has positioned herself on the wrong side of Obama and public opinion—remember her painfully cautious evolution on the Iraq war? Still, what is she thinking? She isn't facing reelection until 2012. Why isn't she using her position on the Senate Finance Committee, one of the groups drafting the health-care-reform bills, to push for a plan that the American people, the president, and her colleagues from Washington all want?
"I'm really frustrated by her inability to listen to her constituents," said Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale and Verite Coffee, and a member of the Washington Small Business for Secure Health Care Coalition. "I don't know if Big Insurance has her in its pocket or what, but it seems like she's watering down what could be a really good transformation in health care." A person active in the local health-policy-reform community added that compared to Murray, Cantwell doesn't seem to care. "Senator Murray has been very responsive," he said. "She's done multiple public events and expressed her support of a public health-insurance plan. Consumers and small businesses have tried to meet with Senator Cantwell on this issue without as much success."
Ciaran Clayton, Cantwell's spokesperson, said Cantwell has been meeting with, and listening to, public-option advocates. But Clayton couldn't explain exactly how Cantwell came to support co-ops, rather than the public option, other than to say: "Everything is on the table, including the public option and co-ops." Which is not what her boss said on KUOW.