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House Democratic Leader Declares National Health Care Legislation "Off The Table" This Year, Maybe Next

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What does it mean when leading House Democrats, and apparently the White House repudiate their own campaign promises to enact a universal-coverage national health care plan only days into the new Congress and new administration, even though they have a popular president and the biggest Congressional majority in two generations? What does it mean when this doesn't even make the evening news? It means the awesome power of corporate media decides the topic of our political conversation. It's not about health care, or campaign promises, or hypocrisy. It's about Blago. Or Britney. Or whatever they tell us it is.

by BAR Managing Editor Bruce Dixon

In the bubble of false reality that passes for corporate journalism, the week's biggest story was, and still is of this writing, the antics of governor Rod Blagojevich, who showed on Larry King, the View and other places comparing himself to Mandela, Gandhi and Jesus while the Illinois legislature debates his impeachment in absentia.

If, on the other hand, the purpose of journalism were to inform rather than entertain the public, the news cycle would be dominated by quite another, and a vastly more important story. In a C-SPAN interview broadcast Sunday, House Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina declared that even with the biggest majority in a generation, Democrats will not even try to put a universal health care bill on the president's desk this year, or maybe the next either.

As recounted by Bob Cusack Monday in The Hill,

During an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that aired on Sunday, Clyburn said he doesn't anticipate that comprehensive healthcare legislation will be approved in 2009.

While noting he does not know exactly when President Obama want to move forward with a universal healthcare measure, Clyburn said, "If you take what we've done with [the State Children's Health Insurance Program bill] and then you follow with [more spending] on community health centers, you would have gone a long way to building a foundation upon which to build a universal access healthcare program.

"I would much rather see it done that way, incrementally, than to go out and just bite something you can't chew. We've been down that road. I still remember 1994."

This troubling statement by the number three Democrat in the House of Representatives is unquestionably more consequential than the clownish Illinois governor and his traveling circus, and profoundly troubling on multiple levels.

To begin with, Democrats in Congress, and the Democrat in the White House clearly ran promising the American people a national health care plan. A public repudiation of that promise by a key member of the president's team in the House less than three weeks into the new Congress and two weeks into t he new administration should be big news. But for some reason it's not.

Secondarily, in the powerful position of House Democratic Whip, Clyburn is a key member of President Obama's team, and consults with the White House on legislation and legislative priorities multiple times a day. Clyburn undoubtedly has the cell numbers of Rahm Emanuel and other White House officials on his speed dial. The notion that Clyburn is not privy to the Obama administration's decision of whether or not to push a universal health care plan this year is something you have to be dumber than a fifth grader to believe. There's only one president at a time, and one leader of the Democratic party at a time. When Clyburn's lips move, the Obama administration is talking.

You haven't heard the White House press spokespeople disown Clyburn's backtracking on Democratic campaign promises to enact universal health care, and you won't. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the rollback of Democratic promises to enact a national health care plan is just a Democratic congressional leadership thing. It's clearly the decision of the Obama White House too.

Third, Clyburn is a longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and back in April of last year signed on as a co-sponsor of HR 676, the Medicare-For-All single payer health care proposal advanced by Rep. John Conyers (D- MI) and endorsed by Physicians For A National Health Care Plan. Is Clyburn being forced to toe the White House line and violate Democratic campaign promises and his personal commitments? Or are he and the House leadership taking initiative on their own to violate those promises and commitments? Again, the silence from the White House makes the former the most likely. How many other co-sponsors of HR 676 just signed it because it made a good press release, but have no intention of seeing it ever brought to a vote?

Finally, Democrats at this moment have a popular and newly elected president, along with the biggest majority in the House and Senate they have enjoyed in a generation. If Democratic leaders are reluctant even to try to put a national health care plan on the president's desk under these favorable circumstances, when will they ever try? Mid-term elections almost invariably shrink Congressional majorities as large as these.

It is estimated that 18,000 premature deaths occur in the US each year because of lack of medical coverage. Fifty or sixty million Americans have no health coverage at all, and another hundred fifty million are grossly underinsured. Democrats were able to pass SCHIP with a smaller majority under the Bush administration. They did not run on promises of "incremental reform". They ran promising to deliver national, comprehensive, universal health care. Clyburn himself is a co-sponsor of the single payer bill. So why are the expectations of House Democrats and the White House, with a popular wind at their backs, so unconscionably low now?

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Bruce Dixon is the managing editor for Black Agenda Report.
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