Today's joint statement by Sens. Max Baucus and Ted Kennedy promising to “seek common ground on health reform legislation” is, in essence, a declaration of war over inclusion of a public insurance plan to compete with private companies.
As chairmen of the two powerful committees shaping the legislation, Baucus (Finance) and Kennedy (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) will be jousting over the core issue that the Obama Administration has been tap-dancing around but will eventually have to face head-on in what promises to be a serious test of the President's toughness and resolve.
After failing to get more than a glimmer of bipartisanship on the stimulus bill, the President up to now has been wooing both the health care establishment and its Republican mercenaries, but the public option (Medicare-for-all) is the deal-breaker he will eventually have to face.
Baucus' Finance Committee, to get Republican Chuck Grassley and his crew on board, has been bending over backward with compromises that would give lip-service to a public plan but "only if private insurance companies had not made meaningful, affordable coverage available to all Americans within several years."
Kennedy and 28 other senators are not buying that, insisting, as are large numbers of House Democrats, on a public plan in the bill that would be sent to Obama, who has said it is needed to “keep the private sector honest,” but thus far has signaled only his vaunted pragmatism if the eventual showdown materializes.
Today's statement is an attempt to put a Band-Aid over Senate differences, but health care reform is ready for the operating table and the Surgeon-in-Chief will have to decide soon about where and how deep to make the incision.