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Bernie Sanders: single-payer is not a "litmus test"

But he thinks Democrats should embrace it to win.

Sen. Bernie Sanders Holds Rally On Jobs, Health Care And The Economy Photo by Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

At least some Senate Democratic staffers are privately dreading Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) upcoming single-payer health care bill. They worry that his new plan will divide the party, pitting Sanders’s base against more moderate Senate Democrats who support a public option or other more incremental improvements to Obamacare.

But Sanders just took a step that might help alleviate their concerns. In an interview with the Washington Post’s David Weigel, the Vermont senator said that he did not consider support for his bill a “litmus test” for his support in future campaigns, which could prove a big deal given his ability to stage rallies and drive progressive voters to the ballot box.

“Is this a litmus test? No, you have to look at where candidates are on many issues,” Sanders told Weigel. “Do I think they can win without supporting single-payer? I’m skeptical. Among the people who consider themselves progressive, who vote in the primaries, there’s clearly movement toward Medicare for All.”

Sanders’ decision may ease the concerns of those worried about Democratic Party infighting over health care. Indeed, one Democratic Party strategist told me Wednesday afternoon that “everyone here is very relieved” Sanders is not making single-payer a “litmus test.”

Sanders is expected to release his long-awaited Medicare-for-all bill in the Senate in early September. Upward of 10 Senate Democrats are rumored to be working with Sanders in support of the bill, but the bulk of the caucus is unlikely to go along. That’s a marked difference from the House, where close to 60 percent of Democrats now support Rep. John Conyers’s (D-MI) single-payer vehicle.

Still, some of the Democratic Party’s most high-profile politicians have embraced Sanders’s Medicare-for-all rallying cry in interviews and on the stump. In the past few months, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have all voiced their support for Medicare-for-all. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told Vox’s Ezra Klein in April that he believes “ultimately, in ideas like single-payer or Medicare-for-all.”

Sanders clearly hopes to build a base of support for Medicare-for-all that will make supporting it an obvious choice for Democratic politicians. But while that may matter for his support in intra-Democratic Party primaries, Sanders is also signaling that he won’t withhold his support during a general election over the issue. (After all, Sanders campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the general election, and she mocked his single-payer proposal as wildly unrealistic.)

“The key is that we know this is a long war. The American people will have to take on the powerful insurance and drug industries to finally put people's health over corporate profits,” said Sanders spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis. “The campaign we are launching now is to educate the American people about what a Medicare-for-all, single-payer system will mean for them their kids and their neighbors, and why we are the only major country in the world that does not guarantee health care to every person as a right not a privilege.”

As Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti pointed out on Twitter, some of Sanders’s most ardent supporters do say that single-payer should be a “litmus test.” But few of them seem willing to blame Sanders for not following suit.

“We’ve been pretty clear that we are not likely to endorse or campaign for candidates who are not on board with Medicare for All,” said Chuck Idelson, a spokesperson for the National Nurses United, perhaps the biggest pro-single-payer group. “It’s really a core issue for our organization, but we understand that Sanders is doing what he thinks is best. He’s done more to popularize this issue than anyone and create the massive movement in this country for Medicare-for-All.”