Forget for a minute about partisan labels and listen to members of the U.S. Senate talk about why they work in politics.
Rob Portman talks about a 16-year-old constituent who died of a drug overdose – and about honoring his life by fighting drug use. Susan Collins speaks eloquently about helping people with Alzheimer’s. Lisa Murkowski talks about protecting children from fetal alcohol disorders, and Lamar Alexander speaks about premature babies.
There are many more stories like these, and they’re not only for show. They reflect deeply held beliefs that senators have about themselves.
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Republican or Democrat, they see themselves as public servants – their preferred term for politicians – trying to make life better for their fellow Americans. Sure, when they’re being honest, they admit that they enjoy the power and perks. But even with all the cynicism Washington engenders, senators still take pride in the high ideals of politics.
This week, these senators will face a career-defining choice.
It is not an easy one for many of them. Republicans have spent years promising to repeal Obamacare. Now the Senate is nearing a vote on whether to do so. Opposing the bill will mark any Republican as a traitor to the party. And the skilled and powerful Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, doesn’t brook dissent kindly.
So what are Portman, Collins, Murkowski, Alexander and other Republican senators going to do?
I hope that each one takes some time away from the daily swirl of Capitol Hill to think back to the reasons they entered politics. I hope they understand that this vote is a test of conscience and of courage.
The immediate incentives all point toward voting for the bill (while expressing regret about its imperfections). A “yes” vote is the politically easy vote. But it is also a vote that will come back to haunt many senators when they reflect on their careers – and when more objective observers pass historical judgment on those careers.
There is little precedent for a bill like this one. That’s why McConnell kept it secret for as long as possible. Americans have often fought bitterly about how large our safety net should be and about the precise forms it should take. But once the country commits to a fundamentally more generous, decent safety net, it becomes an accepted part of society. Poverty, disease and misfortune that had been accepted as normal became rejected as cruel.
Once we stopped allowing 10-year-olds to work in factories and fields, we didn’t go back on it. Once we outlawed 80-hour workweeks at miserly pay, we didn’t reinstate them. Once we made health insurance and Social Security a universal part of old age, we didn’t repeal them.
The Senate health care bill would be a reversal on that scale.
Yes, Obamacare is flawed, and it needs to be improved. But the Senate bill would not fix those flaws. It would instead take away health insurance from millions of Americans – middle class and poor, disabled and sick, young and old – largely to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. Ultimately, the bill would lead many Americans to lose medical care on which they now depend.
I hope the senators will listen to some of these people’s stories. The most affecting that I’ve read recently is about Justin Martin, who has overcome cerebral palsy to become a thriving student at Kenyon College. As the HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn reported, Martin depends on Medicaid to pay for a wheelchair that helps him get around and for health care aides who help him in the bathroom.
When history comes to judge today’s senators, do they want to have made life harder on Justin Martin?
I hope the senators will also take the time to ask themselves why virtually no health care expert supports the bill. Conservative health care experts have blasted it, along with liberal and moderate experts. The Congressional Budget Office says it will do terrible damage. Groups representing doctors, nurses, hospitals and retirees oppose the bill. So do advocates for the treatment of cancer, heart disease, lung disease, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and, yes, cerebral palsy.
I hope the senators will watch a two-minute video created by doctors around the country. In it, each one looks into the camera and explains how the bill would damage medical care. “This bill would dramatically affect my patients,” said Dr. Gregory Lam of Circleville, Ohio, “and my ability to care for them.”
I hope the senators grasp the weight of the decision they face, for the country and for themselves.
Portman, Collins, Murkowski and Alexander; Shelley Moore Capito, Bill Cassidy, Bob Corker, Tom Cotton, Cory Gardner, Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, John McCain, Rand Paul and others: It takes only three of you to prevent millions of your fellow citizens from being harmed. Which of you has the courage to make the right choice over the easy one?