U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold told a large crowd gathered for a listening session in Iron County last week there would likely be no health care bill before the end of the year - and perhaps not at all
It was an assessment Feingold said he didn't like, but the prospect of no health care legislation
brought a burst of applause from a packed house of nearly 150 citizens at the Mercer Community Center.
"Nobody is going to bring a bill before Christmas, and maybe not even then, if this ever happens
," Feingold said. "The divisions are so deep. I never seen anything like that."
Feingold reiterated his appraisal a bit later.
"We're headed in the direction of doing absolutely nothing, and I think that's unfortunate
," he said when asked about the plight of uninsured Americans.
The Mercer session was spirited but civil - as Feingold himself accurately described it - with most people focused squarely on the health care issue, followed by the deficit as a runner-up concern
During the discussion, Feingold said he could not declare whether he would support a health reform bill until he has actually seen one, and he said he would then seek out the opinions of Wisconsinites
. The Senate recessed in late July with a deadlocked Senate Finance Committee unable to finish work on a bill.
"When I get a proposal I can look at it and decide whether I will support it," he said. "I will let the people of the entire state talk to me
The senator, a declared proponent of health care reform
in principle, nonetheless did not seem too concerned about a potential failure of the Obama administration's effort. He said there was merit to the idea of trying a variety of proposals in various states first.
"Lindsay Graham and I sponsored legislation to have pilot programs in five states," Feingold told the audience. "Maybe we should try some different things. There might be a single-payer state
. There might be a co-op state
. Let's get some evidence on the ground. This thing right now is not going in the right direction
. We might be in a situation where there won't be a bill worth passing
In 2007, Feingold and Graham, a South Carolina Republican, introduced the State-Based Health Care Reform Act, which would have allowed states to decide how to achieve insurance coverage.
The senator said again last week he did not think a "one-size-fits-all" approach would work
as well as giving states program flexibility.
At the listening session, Feingold did allay some expressed concern about federally-funded abortions being included as part of a health-care reform package. An amendment removed that provision from the House version of the bill, he said, and a Senate bill won't reintroduce it.
"There's no way we're changing this to offer public funding of abortions
," Feingold said. "Nobody wants to open up that issue
in the middle of this. That's one thing you won't have to worry about."
One audience member pointed to the generous health benefits federal lawmakers enjoy and wondered if Feingold would pledge to take the same health insurance
that Congress "will make the rest of us take."
"I will support a law that will bring us under it," he said. "If I am eligible, I will join it. If I can be part of the system, I will be."
However, he observed, that might not be possible if a government plan is means-tested because his income would no doubt disqualify him.
Finally, Feingold repudiated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's remarks
calling vocal critics of health care reform at town hall meetings "evil mongers."
Feingold called Reid's remarks unfortunate and inappropriate
The nation's growing deficit was a major topic
, too, and Feingold repeatedly cited his credentials as a balanced-budget type of senator.
"I ran for the U.S. Senate on a platform to balance the budget," he said. "In 1992, we had one of the largest deficits in history and we balanced the budget. I led the charge in 1992 to get rid of the federal deficit, and when Bill Clinton left office, there was no federal deficit."
Feingold said he supported the stimulus package earlier this year because of the recession, but he said he would not guarantee his vote for a second stimulus
if one was proposed.
"This was an emergency situation
to get the economy going," Feingold said. "And I have told the administration not to count on me
for another stimulus package. You can't just keep doing this because it creates hyperinflation."
Feingold also said he has not been a supporter of so-called cap-and-trade proposals
, and he compared the issue to global warming, at least with respect to gaining cooperation from other nations.
"You know, the other countries won't play ball
," he said of his attempts to get the international community to work together on global warming. "Maybe we should impose tariffs. We should put some pressure on them. They cannot be given a free pass, and we cannot do cap-and-trade alone
Feingold said his lack of support for cap-and-trade and his votes to cut spending have sometimes put him at odds with the Obama administration
"There's a survey that shows that I am the Democrat who has least voted with President Obama
," he said.
Actually, according to CQ Politics, Feingold and Arlen Specter, who recently switched to the Democratic Party from the GOP, are the two least likely Democrats in the U.S. Senate to vote with the president, with both having supported Obama 86 percent of the time
. By contrast, Democratic Sen. Herb Kohl has voted with the president 97 percent of the time.
On another issue, Feingold said he opposed legislation to require gun registration
, and he said such legislation would die a quick death
in the Senate.
"I have opposed gun registration all my life, and I will continue to oppose it," he said. "We've got the votes
in the Senate to kill that."