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Minnesota Democrat steps up to lead House fight for “Medicare for all”
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) waits to speak during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol in opposition to the involvement of U.S. military forces in Syria March 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

After Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) resigned in December amid multiple sexual harassment allegations, progressives in the House of Representatives lost their lead sponsor on a bill to try and create a health care system that would provide “Medicare for all.”

On Wednesday, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) announced he will take Conyers’ place as the bill’s new lead sponsor, vowing to fight until the system becomes a reality.

“I think it’s important that Americans get the best health care they can,” Ellison said in an interview. “Our country pays the most for health care per capita, but we don’t get the best health care by any means. So I felt like I would join with my colleagues to move the debate forward around Medicare for all.”

Ellison said that his decision to become the bill’s lead champion in the House came after discussions with the other co-sponsors of the bill, and with single-payer advocates like the National Nurses Union.

The bill, which Conyers has introduced since 2003, would create a government sponsored health care program for all citizens, similar to those extant in many other industrialized nations.

Since his bid to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee in February 2017, Ellison has become something of an icon for progressives nationwide. When former Obama administration Labor Secretary Tom Perez narrowly bested Ellison in the bid to become DNC chair, Perez appointed Ellison to a top DNC position. Many saw this as an effort to appease grassroots progressives in the Democratic base.

Ellison made sure to note that his decision to become the lead sponsor on the bill was done solely in his capacity as a member of Congress, and not as a representative of the DNC. The committee has only gone as far as endorsing the more broad goal of “universal health care” coverage, and has not taken a definitive position on how that goal should be achieved.

However, Ellison’s decision to sponsor the bill illustrates the extent to which the grassroots progressive movement has made single-payer health care a top priority. Since the 2016 election, support for a “Medicare for all” health care system has ballooned among both Democratic members of Congress and the broader electorate.

The bill Ellison will take the lead on already has the support of at least 120 House members.

“It’s not just me — we have some awesome advocates for this bill,” Ellison said, name checking several House colleagues like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). “I’m not alone in this.”

When Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) introduced the Senate version of the “Medicare for all” bill in September 2017, one-third of all Democrats in the U.S. Senate supported it — including many potential presidential hopefuls like Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Their support came only a few months after the defeat of 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who had dismissed the idea of single payer health care in the U.S., claiming it would “never, ever come to pass.”

Nationally, a full 60% of Americans support the idea of “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American,” according to one Economist/You Gov. poll.

Despite that growing support, neither House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have signed onto either the House or Senate efforts as cosponsors. But Ellison doesn’t believe that will be a problem in getting a single-payer bill to the floor in a future Congress.

“The leadership is elected by the membership [in Congress],” Ellison said. “And so the leadership is going to do what the membership wants.”

Ellison’s primary goal is to use that broad national support to encourage more Democrats to sign on to the bill.

“If you want to influence a member, you go talk to their constituents, that’s how democracy works,” he said. “People know that this is going to make their lives better, so candidates are picking it up, because they know Americans are going to benefit from it.”