Washington (CNN) –Senate Democrats appear to have come up with a deal that holds their fragile caucus together in the face of a promised Republican filibuster of health care reform, but a top Democratic backer said Sunday that the fight for more progressive principles in the bill is not over.
Appearing Sunday on CNN’s State of the Union, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, walked a fine line between continuing to express support for President Obama and threatening liberal grassroots action in the final stages of the year-long fight over health care reform or even ultimately withholding his influential union’s support for the final bill that could be presented to Obama early next year.
Asked about the Senate’s use of a tax on so-called high-premium, “Cadillac” insurance plans to help pay the bill’s nearly $900 billion price tag, Stern suggested his union would continue to oppose the tax.
“What we've done and what we do is fight for what we believe in,” Stern told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King.
“So, where we are now is we're saying to the president, to the House and to the Senate, we get another shot in the conference committee to deal with affordability issues,” Stern also said Sunday. “People need to be able to afford it, and that's what the fight is about.”
Stern listed areas where he thought the final bill could be changed before being sent to the Oval Office for Obama’s signature: the level of subsidies in the House and Senate bills provided to those who cannot afford entirely to pay for insurance on their own; taxing health care benefits including the high-premium plans many unions have negotiated on behalf of their members, and more regulation of the insurance industry.
But the union head was blunt and realistic about what will not be included in the bill.
“There is not going to be a public option, there is not going to be Medicare buy-in. I'm as disappointed as anyone. But progressives out there - it's about progress, and we now have to fight for the changes we want in the conference committee, and then make a decision when it's over.”
And Stern suggested that Democrats could pay dearly in next year’s midterm elections if more of the concerns of his members are not addressed in the final version of the health care reform bill.
“Our members are no different than anyone else,” Stern told King. “They elected 60 Democratic senators because they promised them they would promote change. And all we've done with that gift, I would say, is squander it. You know, we have not even been able to have a legitimate debate about some of these issues in the Senate. So I think people are going to look: did we get change, did people fight for change? I think it's clear they think that President Obama is fighting for health care, he's fighting for jobs, he's fighting for other issues. I think it's also very clear they're really disappointed with the Senate, you know, not being able to have a debate. This is crazy, that [senators] can use their individual votes to distort democracy. Americans wanted them to have real debates, they promised them an opportunity, and they need to do something about it.
“They need to have a reset button in the Democratic Caucus after this is over,” Stern said of the Senate, “and say what did we come here to do? Was it really to let any of one of us stop a debate in the U.S. Senate? That's not what people voted for.”
While he repeatedly criticized the Senate and its procedures, Stern had praise for the president.
“We are really proud that this president has kept this health care debate alive right now. It is pretty easy to say that on this road to change, there could have been a lot of exit ramps and detours, but the president has stuck to his course.”
According to information released by the White House, Stern has the distinction of being the most frequent visitor to the executive mansion since Obama took office nearly a year ago.