(WASHINGTON) — A growing number of Democratic senators -– including several party power-players — will stand with independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Wednesday as co-sponsors to his latest bill for a government run, single-payer health care system. The rising support among Democrats for Sanders’ sweeping proposal, which would entail a massive overhaul of a major part of the U.S. economy, marks a clear sea change to the left in party.
“The growing momentum for Medicare-for-all is a remarkable turnaround for an idea that was deemed too radical to even debate eight years ago. However, it’s really a testament to the political clarity of the policy and the steadfast work Senator Sanders has put into organizing support for it inside and outside the halls of power,” progressive activist and Executive Director of Democracy for America Charles Chamberlain wrote in a statement Tuesday.
As of Tuesday evening, thirteen Democratic senators had signed on to the bill, including several more moderate members of caucus and a number considered to be possible 2020 presidential contenders. A similar bill introduced in the House by Representative John Conyers, D-Mich., has 117 cosponsors.
Sanders spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis told ABC News, “Clearly Democrats are seeing that the vast majority of their constituents and increasingly the majority of the American people support single-payer.”
The Vermont senator has been advocating for what he calls a ‘Medicare-for-all’ health care system for decades, but not one of his Senate colleagues had been willing to back his legislation in the past. When Sanders made the idea a central part of presidential campaign, several Democrats, including congressional leadership and the party’s eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, said the proposal was unrealistic and would be too costly and disruptive to the US economy. They accused Sanders of being disloyal to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was under sufficient attack by Republicans.
“The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again. We are not England. We are not France,” Clinton said during a presidential debate in February 2016 where she argued against Sanders plan. “Based on every analysis that I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up, and many people will actually be worse off than they are right now.”
Still, Sanders and progressive lawmakers at the local level and in the House continued to mobilize grassroots support around the issue even after Democrats lost the White House. They continued to argue that health care costs remained too high and that the so-called Obamacare law had not guaranteed universal health care coverage. They pushed the Democratic Party to embrace a vision for more socialized health care even as Republicans were voting to dismantle the current Affordable Care Act [ACA] and put in place market-driven reforms instead.
“Despite the lunatics in the Republican Party, they are not entirely wrong about the [ACA]. It does have serious holes in it,” Chuck Idelson, Communications Director for a major nurses union, National Nurses United, told ABC News this week. The union was one the first and most committed groups backing Sanders’ bid for the White House.
Idelson added, “Democrats have been recognizing that they lost the last election, because they failed to speak to issues that affect people’s daily lives. Nothing affects people’s lives more than their health care.”
A number of progressive political organizations, including the National Nurses United, have effectively made the issue a litmus test for any Democratic candidates seeking their support going forward.
Still, plenty of Democrats are opposed to the bill or at least remain skeptical of the concept. Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez hedged Tuesday when asked about the growing momentum around Sanders’ bill. He said it was one of many ideas among members of the party for achieving universal health care coverage in the country, but cautioned that Democrats are still playing quite a lot of “defensive” on the issue.
“We have always believed in universal health care. We are 90 percent of the way there. We are fighting to get the final 10 percent and fighting against a Republican administration that wants to take away a big part of the 90 percent,” Perez told ABC News Tuesday. “The question is, ‘What is the fastest way to get to 100 percent?’ … Different democrats may have different pathways to get there and that is the debate that will ensue.”
Idelson speculated that it was easier for Democrats to get on board with the idea of single-payer now, when Republicans controlled Washington they did not have chance of actually passing or implementing the legislation. Many Democrats, perhaps, have calculated it is better to avoid alienating activists on the left who have been incredibly animated since President Trump took office. “But we are going to remind people of [their co-sponsorship]. We are going to remind people that this is really the only solution to the health care crisis,” Idelson added.
Sanders’ team too has acknowledged that Republican congress and administration will almost certainly never consider their legislation. Lewis-Miller said the bill was designed as a negotiating tool anyway.
“The bill we are introducing is not going to be the final bill that is signed into law, but it is going to be the beginning of a conversation about what single-payer in the United States would look like, Miller-Lewis continued.”
He delighted that the proposal had at least broken through into the mainstream and would be a point of central consideration and debate in Democratic politics going forward.
“Gillibrand, Booker, Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders. Is there anyone else who is possibly running for president in 2020?” he said, listing some of the heavy-hitters in the senate backing the bill. “It’s amazing…That now will mean that the conversation about single payer, Medicare-for-all is at the heart of the Democratic Party.”
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