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Stern To Congress: Don't Chicken Out On Health Care.

Everybody who follows health care policy is talking about an article in the latest edition of The Hill: "Dems Hedge on Health Care."

The article, written by Manu Raju, has on-the-record quotes from two Democratic Senators--Max Baucus and Jay Rockefeller--seriously lowering expectations for what Congress might be able to accomplish next year, no matter who is in the White House come January 2009. 

For the last year, momentum for universal health care has been buildilng. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the idea, at least in principle; Senator Ron Wyden has been building a bipartisan coalition behind his proposal; a wide array of interest groups have been agitating for it, if not for the sake of social justice than for the sake of cutting down on the cost of employee benefits; and polls show the public supports universal coverage at levels not seen since the early 1990s.

But Rockefeller thinks that may be too much, too soon--particularly given the scarcity of federal funds these days: “We all know there is not enough money to do all this stuff,” Rockefeller told the Hill. As for the presidential candidates, Rockefeller said, “What they are doing is … laying out their ambitions.”

This is pretty discouraging stuff. Rockefeller is a longtime advocate for universal coverage; his moral commitment to the issue is not in question. And Baucus, whose comments were much less negative but still not enthusiastic, chairs the Finance Committee--through which any universal coverage bill must go.

Still, this isn't the last word on the subject. I just got off the phone with Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who in recent years has done as much to promote the cause of universal coverage as any single person in politics. And he is not at all happy.

"I thought it was embarassing," Stern said. "I think it showed an incredible lack of appreciation for what most Americans are confronting every day in this health care system. ... What was said in this aritcle is not the kind of leadership that I think Americans are expecitng after this election."

Stern added that he'd just come from a meeting with Hill leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and (separately) Senators Richard Durbin and Edward Kennedy. In that meeting, he said, he stressed the need to lay the groundwork for action now and to be bold, particularly given the "brave" position the presidential candidates have taken.

"We are going to win an election that's about change and they should be prepared to act differently than they have over the last eight years," Stern said. Then--appropriating a phrase from Senator Barack Obama, whom SEIU has endorsed--Stern added " 'Yes we can' is going to be the watchword in Washington. And the last thing we need is a Democratic Congress and Democratic Senate saying 'maybe we can,' or 'maybe we can do it step by step.' "

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More on this to come.

--Jonathan Cohn