To most of America, Wyden obviously doesn't stand out, even after 15 years in the House and 11 in the Senate. At 58, he's just another little-known member of the ruling Democratic majority in Congress.
Yet the senior U.S. senator from Oregon is among the few lawmakers who opposed the Iraq war from the start. He was one of only 10 senators to vote against renewing the Patriot Act last year, and he supports legalizing same-sex marriage.
Those stances might not win an election in Colorado Springs, but they help make Wyden an influential voice among Democrats inside the Capitol.
Last weekend in Portland, Ore., Wyden spoke to editors and publishers attending the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies national convention. He could talk all day about the war in Iraq, and he makes it clear that "more votes are coming up" to push harder than ever for a timetable to bring troops home.
But this wasn't an anti-war speech. Wyden used the unusual opportunity of this national audience in his hometown to discuss his other favorite subject:
Wyden already has authored bills trying to reform and improve the health-care system, which he refers to as "broken" and "sick care, not health care." To back up that characterization, he says the amount of money going to health care would be enough to have one physician making $200,000 a year for every seven U.S. families. He adds that despite the staggering, $2.2 trillion annual expenditure, Americans' life expectancy ranks 31st among the world's nations just ahead of Albania and just behind Jordan.
Some might wonder why a low-profile senator doesn't wait to discuss all this until after the 2008 presidential election. Surely then, if a Democrat replaces George W. Bush, the next administration can make major progress.
Of course, what if the next president turns out to be Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson or another Republican? What if the GOP reverses its Senate deficit?
That helps explain why health care is Wyden's obsessive mission now. He's not content to wait until Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or Bill Richardson prevails. As Wyden puts it, "Everybody running for president has a plan, but I have a specific strategy for how to get there from here."
In pursuing his crusade, Wyden has proposed the Healthy Americans Act. He's encouraged for three reasons: He sees an "incredible" about-face in the business community, moving from "we can't afford to fix health care" to "we can't afford not to fix health care." He sees business and labor agreeing something must be done. And he hears conservatives conceding that "if we're going to fix health care, we have to cover everybody."
Wyden feels the biggest issue is worsening health insurance through employers because of rate increases mixed with benefit reductions. Wyden says work-based plans are "melting like a Popsicle on a summer sidewalk in August."
His proposal would end all insurance tied to work, giving employers a break and allowing employees to leave dead-end jobs without losing benefits. Individuals and families would buy health insurance much as they purchase car insurance now. Wyden's bill also forces insurance companies to "take all comers" and guarantee lifetime coverage at reasonable rates tied to income, even with pre-existing conditions. As he says, "Once you sign up, you're in forever."
Wyden's simple theme: Everybody should have the same secure, affordable, high-quality coverage as members of Congress. It also could solve the rising problem of covering military veterans, especially those who served in Iraq. It would offer incentives for citizens and insurers who give a high priority to wellness and prevention. It could save $1.48 trillion in 10 years (based on current costs and relentless increases) without requiring any new government money.
Hard to argue with any of that. But what happens next? Wyden is working to build a list of backers for his bill, also known as S. 334. He's hoping people will learn about the proposal (for more, check out wyden.senate.gov) and urge legislators in our case, starting with Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard to become co-sponsors.
In about 45 minutes, Ron Wyden made believers out of many cynics in this audience. He insists he's just trying to make America a better place.
He could be on the verge of succeeding.
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