Stupak, Woolsey, and the Difference Between Fighting and Just Asking Politely

As much as I hate everything Bart Stupak (D-MI) is trying to do as it relates to abortion and health care reform--on policy, personal, and moral grounds--there is one, very small silver lining to his actions. He has made perfectly clear the difference between politely asking for something and fighting for something in Congress.

Bart Stupak put together a small coalition and decided to fight for his abortion restriction language. Fighting requires one to make use of every tool and hardball tactic at your disposal. Stupak's gang became an immovable object, which gave Democrats only three choices: go around his group, accept being stopped cold by his group, or move heaven and earth to find a way to meet their demands.

In the House, the Democratic leadership seems to have been unable to find a way to get the votes they need without Stupak, so going around him is not an option. Equally, they refuse to let this health care bill be stopped by him, so they are working furiously to find a way to give in to his demands. Possibilities to appease Stupak include a third bill, a sidebar bill, and a special waiver of the Byrd rule.

Does it matter that the majority of the Democratic Caucus did not want the Stupak amendment? No, Stupak was able to force a floor vote on his amendment anyway. Does it matter that it is clear from a floor vote on a nearly identical amendment in the Senate that his abortion language does not even have majority support in Senate? No, Stupak, by standing firm, expects Obama/Reid to whip those votes in the Senate anyway. And it sounds like he might just win in the end.

Contrast with Woolsey

Stupak has shown how you can fight for something using your maximum leverage at the right moments. Contrast this with the behavior of Lynn Woolsey, co-chair of the progressive caucus, who, despite claiming to fight for a public option, has only asked politely. From the end of her op-ed in Roll Call about the public option:
I will fight to include the public option in the final version of the health care reform legislation.

If it is not included, however, it will rise from the dead once again.

The day after the health care legislation is passed, I will introduce a bill calling for the public option.

What you are doing here, Rep. Woolsey, is not “fighting,” it is asking politely and talking nonsense about empty gestures with zero chance of going anywhere.

With Democrats deciding they will use reconciliation, and with leadership whipping votes in the House to finally pass health care reform, progressives should be at the height of their negotiating power. If they formed a block, similar in size to Stupak’s, and refused to vote for health care reform without a public option--as many of them promised to do--the Democratic leadership would have no choice but to work tirelessly to meet their demands, just as they are working to appease Stupak's gang. It does not matter if Obama thinks the public option might be a few votes shy of 51 in the Senate. If he actually thought it was the only way to pass reform, for the first time ever he might actually try to whip the votes for it. It is amazing how minds change if Obama actually whips for something. Instead, Woolsey preemptively throws away all negotiating power by saying she would vote for Senate bill regardless.
This talk about “The day after the health care legislation is passed, I will introduce a bill calling for the public option,” sounds like stupid, childish nonsense that no one should take seriously, and for good reason. If you are unwilling to play hardball to get what you want at a moment of maximum leverage, there is no way this standalone bill is going overcome a filibuster in the Senate, or even reach the House floor.

Just writing a bill is no plan for achieving your goals. If Woolsey were serious about playing hardball to get a public option after this bill passed, the first step would be to get her caucus to vote against the budget unless it contained reconciliation instructions that could be used to add a public option. The second step would be to then, after the reconciliation instructions mature, vote as a block to bring down any bill that is a priority of conservative House or Senate Democrats (think: agriculture appropriations) until the public option reconciliation measure is signed into law.

This is not pretty, fun, or a way to make friends, but this is how you truly fight to achieve your goals. This is how you play hardball with a dysfunctional Senate. If progressives in the House plan on only asking politely for progressive change, like the public option, then that is what they should tell their supporters they are going to do. Constituents, grassroots volunteers, and donors deserve to know that you will only ask politely, and never play hardball. If you claim you are going to actually fight for something, you better be prepared to step into the ring for a bloody, bare knuckle brawl.

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