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An interview with Sen. Sherrod Brown: 'Reid listened to his senators'


Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has been one of the Senate's leaders on the public option. His strategy, in large part, has been to emphasize how many Democrats support the idea, in comparison to the few that oppose it. Today, his work paid off, and the Senate will be considering a bill with a version of a national public option. I spoke to Sen. Brown about whether this is a good compromise, what will happen with Olympia Snowe, and why Democrats don't talk about Medicare more. A lightly edited transcript follows.

What do you think of the compromise proposal?

I think it's good. Sen. Reid listened to his senators. There's clearly more than 50 votes for a strong public option. He listened to the voters. Public option polling showed two to one in favor of it. And he listened to the doctors. The Robert Woods Johnson foundation surveyed doctors and found 70 percent were for it. And he personally is very much for it.

Olympia Snowe has said she won't vote for the bill if it contains a public option. Ben Nelson has made similar noises. Will a couple of moderates have a hammerlock on this legislation?

I don't think so. Two reasons. First, I don't think any Democrat wants to be the person who killed the most important Democratic initiative of their lifetime on a procedural vote. They may vote against the bill. But I don't think they vote against it on cloture. Second, I've done a bit of writing on Medicare in the 1960s. In those days, there were Rockefeller Republicans, which don't exist anymore except for Snowe. Collins isn't really one of them. But a lot of the Republicans voted no. And many of them had buyer's remorse a year or two later. Some number thought later that that was the wrong vote. And pretty clearly it was the wrong vote. It may not be till the conference report. But I think we're going to see more votes than predicted.

You've seen a bit of that with former Republican Senate leaders like Bob Dole, Bill Frist and Howard Baker all coming out in favor of reform. They've all said, essentially, we missed our chance on this. Don't miss yours. What is it that makes this so much harder in office than out of office?

They don't have the right wing wackos blowing in their ear. Anybody with any decency and perspective watching this saw how the right wing so overreached by out-and-out lying and scaring people. American politics is replete with examples of politicians playing to fear. But people are desperate. I stand on the Senate floor every day and read a half-dozen stories from letters sent by people in Ohio. Most of the people who write would have said a year or two ago that they were happy with their health care, but then they had a baby born with a preexisting condition, or they got hit with an out-of-pocket cap, or they're facing rescission on a technicality. And then there are the people in their 50s who just pray that they make it until they get onto Medicare. And that anxiety is so sad.

Even when senators represent the same constituencies, though, they often vote in different ways. Grassley and Harkin, for instance, both represent Iowa but aren't likely to vote the same way on health-care reform. You and Voinovich aren't likely to line up together on this. Why does this happen?

The ideological spectrum left to right is pretty meaningless to voters. If you believe in the continuum, then the Democrat or Republican who can grab the center wins. But it's ultimately about whose side you're on. One out of four voters in Ohio in 1988 voted for [liberal senator] Howard Metzenbaum and George W. Bush. Some fairly high percentage of Metzenbaum's voters called Metzenbaum a conservative. And the reason they did was they were conservative, and he fought for them, so in their minds, he was conservative.

Will this bill get credit for being a compromise? After all, it's a compromise down from single-payer, down from a Medicare-like public option, and down from a national level-playing field public option.

Sen. Kennedy originally asked Sheldon Whitehouse and me to write the public option. But it became bigger even than I, a strong supporter of it, think it is. Progressives don't think it's a good bill unless it's in it. Conservatives think it isn't a good bill because it's in it. But this is good language because the state compromise isn't giving away too much. It won't put insurers out of business. But it will make them behave better. And at this point, we've compromised three times, and I haven't seen anything from the other side.

The problem with talking about Medicare is that if I asked 50 people on the street about Medicare, even if they were under 65, I'd get 85 percent support. But we in Congress hear from doctors who complain about reimbursement, device manufactures who complain about revenues, rich people who talk about government screwing everything up. I think the right way to sell this was based on Medicare. But my colleagues don't see it that way. As soon as we linked it to Medicare in the House, we lost votes.

Photo credit: Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  October 26, 2009; 6:36 PM ET
Categories:  Health Reform , Interviews  
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Can somebody explain the math behind the "free rider" provision to me? I don't know what the final bill contains but AP said the "free rider" provision would be a $750 fine per employee for any employer with more than 50 employees who does not provide health insurance. Since health insurance costs much more than $750, won't employers be motivated to drop/not offer insurance and instead pay the fine? And then doesn't that put taxpayers on the hook for the subsidies that will be provided to employees whose income level qualifies for them?

Posted by: BrAdams | October 26, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Good interview. Sherrod Brown is a damn good senator who has taken a lead on this. As an observer it looks to me that he has done a lot of heavy lifting at bringing his colleagues along on this.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | October 26, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Goof on Brown for calling out Susan Collins. She is constantly lumped in with Snowe as a "moderate" Republican. She isn' all. She survives on Snowe's coattails.

Posted by: tslynch27 | October 26, 2009 9:23 PM | Report abuse

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