Update: With Elaine Rose, the CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes! Washington, challenging state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown in the comments thread, we decided to move Sen. Brown's PubliCola op/ed to the top of the site.
Yesterday, we ran an op/ed from Dana Laurent, the Political Director of Planned Parenthood Votes! Washington, explaining why Planned Parenthood currently opposes the U.S. Senate health care bill.
Today, we're running an op/ed by state Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3) who supports the bill.
It’s tempting to join in the chorus of disappointment over the recent compromises forged on the health care reform bill. The elimination of the public option, the nixed Medicare expansion and Sen. Nelson’s abortion language left many proponents of health care reform wondering if the pruning of the measure necessary to get it through the Senate ultimately leaves anything worth supporting.
I understand the frustration borne of high expectations inevitably tempered by hard reality. It’s hard not to get invested in a particular solution to a problem as large and important—and one that touches all of our lives in the most personal of ways—as the one posed by our current health care un-system. It’s especially hard after a presidential election in which sweeping change for the problems facing our nation never seemed more readily at hand.
Yet, as a lawmaker, I sympathize with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and can understand the challenge he faces. My own Senate Democratic caucus—which represents the heart of liberal Capitol Hill on the one hand and a conservative blue-collar timber community like Hoquiam on the other—is as diverse and independent-minded as Sen. Reid’s. And when my caucus held a one-seat majority in the state Senate in 2005, I too experienced the unique situation that Senator Reid now faces of having every single member of the caucus represent a potential veto on any given vote.
One important lesson I learned along the way is that lawmakers do not blindly follow leadership in the Senate—but they will unite behind a leader if they each feel their best interests are taken to heart. It’s important for the leader and for members of the caucus to recognize that while each member has individual interests, those interests are often best served when the collective interest of the caucus is advanced. Being responsive to individual priorities allows individuals to be responsive to the priorities of their teammates. A leader who can bring it all together may not make all individual members happy, but will achieve collective victories.
The question then inevitably arises: Is half a loaf of bread better than no loaf at all? Some with a specific interest in the issue at hand (they wanted poppy seeds above all else!) will always be around to say no loaf at all. But for the broader membership of the caucus—and the constituents they represent—half a loaf, while not as satisfying as the whole, is usually better than nothing.
Which brings me to the issue for which PubliCola asked me to write about—namely, the language Sen. Ben Nelson added to the bill to address his concerns about abortion.
The issue of abortion ain’t poppy seeds. It’s a real and serious health consideration for women, and a public policy issue that most men and women in our country have strong personal feelings about. As I read it, the Nelson language does nothing to enhance women’s access to abortion, but neither does it further limit it (as the much more restrictive Stupak amendment that passed in the House would do). As a pro-choice woman, I am certainly concerned that it adds to the stigmatization of abortion and further codifies that stigma into law.
However, it’s important to note that the pending Senate measure does not harm Washington women’s existing right to choose. Washington is not one of the 17 states that prohibit insurance companies from covering abortion care in either public or private employee health plans—those that may “opt out” of subsidized coverage of plans that include abortion under Nelson’s language. We are a strong choice state and will remain a strong choice state, whether health care reform passes or not.
The question we need to answer is this: If the current bill doesn’t hinder Washington’s women’s right to choose but adds hundreds of thousands of uninsured Washingtonians to the ranks of those with health insurance, should we still support it if this may not be the case in other states? I believe the answer is yes – especially if by not supporting it we deny health insurance to those same hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians.
I believe we achieve a strong union by having strong states—even when other states pursue policies we wouldn’t necessarily pursue in our own. Also important: The Nelson amendment represents a continuation of current policy in those 17 states, not a step backwards—a distinction of considerable difference.
Do I like the Nelson language and the posture it takes toward choice? No, not even a little bit. I suspect most PubliCola readers don’t either. But do I believe the health care bill represents much-needed progress for our nation, even with the Nelson language included? Yes, I do.
Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane), PhD, is the state Senate Majority Leader and an Associate Professor in the Master's of Organizational Leadership program at Gonzaga University. In 2002, she was elected by her colleagues as the leader of the Democratic Caucus. In 2005, she became the first woman Democratic Senate Majority Leader in state history. Sen. Brown is currently serving her fourth term in the Senate.