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Published: Tuesday, 10/6/2009

The Democrats' fault

HUMORIST Will Rogers famously said: "I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat." As the debate about health-care reform proceeds in Congress, it is easy to see what he meant, although this time it's no joke.

Last week, the Senate Finance Committee rejected the public option for medical insurance but while the Republicans were, true to form, no help, they weren't really the problem. It was the majority Democrats.

The vote on an amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia was 15-8, with committee chairman Sen. Max Baucus of Montana joining four other Democrats and all 10 Republicans on the committee in rejecting the public option.

Mr. Baucus, who favors nonprofit, member-owned insurance cooperatives instead of a public option, said he likes parts of the legislation, but "my first job is to get the bill across the finish line."

Actually, his first job is to show leadership, without which the Democratic center will not hold and health-care reform will be lost. The Democrats are not organized, but the Republicans are.

If the Democrats want to squander their numerical superiority in Congress and doom their political prospects, then fragmentation and lack of discipline are the way to go.

A second vote on a public-option plan, crafted to address objections that a public plan would enjoy an unfair competitive advantage over private insurance companies - criticism that, in fact, doesn't say much for the effectiveness of the private sector - was also defeated, albeit by the tighter margin of 13-10.

While President Obama is partly right in saying that the public option is only a means to an end and it is what works in the end that is important, these votes were disheartening. To be sure, this is a work in progress and the votes weren't unexpected.

But what are the millions who voted for President Obama last November to think as every proposal is watered down according to a recipe that the Republicans will support privately but will never vote for in public? Clearly, there will be no single-payer plan, and perhaps now not even a modest public option.

What else will be sacrificed?

At the end of the day, conservatives will always consider it "a government-run health-care plan," no matter what is done to make it otherwise. That being true, it would be better for the Democrats to show some spine and do what has to be done, even if the end result isn't perfect to their individual tastes in every detail.

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