Sen. Joe Lieberman's latest threat to scuttle health-care reform vowing to join a Republican filibuster to block an over-55 buy-in to Medicare, a proposal that he has long championed is raising questions about his motives. But no one is mentioning the unmentionable, the cause that has come to define Lieberman's career: Israel.
Is it possible that Lieberman's obstructionist behavior doesn't relate to Connecticut's insurance industry or to his political ego the two most cited explanations but rather to a calculation that he can use his leverage on health care to limit the pressure that President Barack Obama can put on Israel to make concessions on a Mideast peace plan?
After all, the more common explanations of Lieberman's behavior have holes in their logic.
While it is true that Lieberman's constituent Hartford-based insurance companies fear any government intrusion in their industry, the actual proposals for the Medicare buy-in or the tightly constrained "public option" actually would benefit the industry in the near term.
Those uninsured Americans 55 to 64 are customers whom the insurance industry doesn't want. They are the part of the uninsured population that is most likely to need medical care, which is why private insurers have driven up the rates so high that these people can't afford to buy health insurance.
Letting these desperate Americans buy into Medicare wouldn't cost the health insurance industry much of anything and it would reduce the moral (and PR) crisis that has led so many Americans to view private insurers as vultures preying on the most vulnerable.
In his past position in favor of the Medicare buy-in, Lieberman has recognized this reality, noting that this over-55 group faces a particular crisis because they have "retired early or unfortunately have been laid off early" and can't afford health insurance.
Though Lieberman has long been a major recipient of health insurance industry backing, that has never before prevented him from favoring this Medicare buy-in. Only now does Lieberman say that he would join a Republican filibuster to kill the entire bill if his earlier proposal is included.
So, Senate Democratic leaders have reportedly agreed to drop the buy-in provision to appease Lieberman even though such a watered-down Senate bill may complicate reconciliation with a more liberal House bill and is infuriating the Democratic base.
Killing the Public Option
Similarly, Lieberman has protested any inclusion of a government-run insurance option even if it is only triggered by the failure of private insurers to offer affordable alternatives or if it is so tightly constrained that it would attract only a few million customers, again drawn primarily from the ranks of Americans most in need of medical care.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that only about six million people would sign up for the House version of the public option whose rates would likely exceed those of private plans because the sick would gravitate to the government plan. The current Senate version, with a state-by-state opt-out provision, would draw even fewer customers, the CBO said.
Yet either version actually helps the health insurance industry by siphoning off sick people and thus allowing the industry to corner the market on healthier customers, where the biggest profits lie.
So, Lieberman may not be serving the industry's best interests by jeopardizing passage of a health reform bill. Not only does the industry stand to pick up tens of millions of new customers who will be compelled to buy insurance and sometimes with government subsidies but a decent reform bill also blunts demands for more radical changes.
If Americans grow more furious with the current system its rising costs and its failure to cover nearly 50 million people voters might press for a single-payer approach which could eliminate private insurers altogether.