Wyden, no surprise, was more optimistic. "I think it's at the head of the queue," he said. "The fact is, it's the only bipartisan major policy issue on offer in the health care area."
But it's not that bipartisan. No other Republicans have gotten behind the bill. "We've heard that it's not going to happen," said Pat McDonald, chairman of the Vermont GOP. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., a doctor who's been one of the GOP's point men on health care, pointed out that Republicans will oppose anything that leaves the ACA in place. It doesn't matter if residents of one state or another state will be spared a mandate. They're building the system with blueprints that Republicans desperately want to burn.
"The concern I have with Sen. Wyden's proposal is that to be able to qualify you have to meet all the obligations of ObamaCare," said Barrasso, pointedly not mentioning Brown's co-sponsorship. "Those aren't obligations people should have to live under." Barrasso was just as skeptical that Vermont's plan would become a shimmering ideal that other states would want to copy.
"I think there's at most three states this might ever apply to," he said, referring to the early waiver. "For 47 states, this won't apply, ever. I'm in favor of state's rights, but look at what we saw with the Massachusetts state plan. The waits to see a doctor are exceptionally long. Their insurance premiums are on average much higher than the rest of the country."
It is something both sides have in common: a rock-solid belief that the other guys can't possibly win. When I asked Sanders what would happen if the Affordable Care Act was overturned in full by the Supreme Court, he dismissed it as a hypothetical question, like asking if an earthquake would screw up the plan.
"I understand what some of our ultra-conservative people believe," said Sanders.
But I think the overwhelming majority of the American people—even our friends at the Supreme Court—believe the U.S. government has the right to be involved with health care. [Go] outside the Beltway, and take a walk a mile away, and say, "Gee, there are some people in Congress who think the government should not be involved in Medicare, S-CHIP, and the Veterans Administration." You find 2 percent of people who agree with that, and I'll be very surprised.
The single-payer Democrats don't want to hear about what could go wrong. They've found their Saskatchewan. They know how this movie's supposed to go. "Some of these people have trouble imagining what could happen," said McDermott. "Once they see it, they'll say, 'Wow, we can do that! We're as good as those people in Vermont, for Chrissake!' "