Clarence Fanto: On impeachment math and 'Medicare for All' bottom line

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LENOX — It's been a week of impeachment fever, Mideast chaos and rampant speculation over the Current Occupant's state of mind. Amid a news deluge that threatens total confusion, here are two points of clarity that might have been overlooked:

- It doesn't take two-thirds of the full Senate to convict President Donald Trump after a trial, if he's impeached (indicted) by the House on a mostly party-line vote. Read on.

- Elizabeth Warren's apparent momentum and front-runner status as the likely Democratic presidential nominee is in jeopardy because she's concealing the true cost of her "Medicare for All" plan (essentially lifted from Bernie Sanders' "I wrote the damn bill"). She's refusing to acknowledge the tax impact on middle-class Americans. We'll get to that shortly.

First, the astounding research uncovered by the website (the digital version of the magazine).

If all 100 senators show up to vote on removing Trump from office, 67 would be needed — it's most unlikely that 20 craven Republicans would vote "aye," joining all 45 Democrats and two independents.

However, as verified by retired Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin, the Constitution doesn't indicate that removal from office requires two-thirds of the Senate. It requires two-thirds of senators PRESENT for the proceedings.

"The Constitution contains quorum requirements and clearly distinguishes between percentages of a particular chamber and percentages of `members present,' " according to Laurence Tribe, the eminent professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the co-author of the book "To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment."

"That language in the provision for Senate conviction on impeachment charges is quite deliberate, creating precisely the possibility" of a lower numerical threshold for conviction, Tribe pointed out. The Senate's formal rules on impeachment, last updated in 1986, repeat the Constitution's "present" provision numerous times.

Suppose 30 Republicans want to see Trump removed but can't face his wrath and the fury of his core Republican base. They could jump the fence by not showing up for the vote. That would mean with 70 members participating, the 45 Democrats and two independents — Sanders, and Angus King of Maine — could convict.

As Frumin, the Senate parliamentarian emeritus, put it: "You're talking about Republicans who want to remove him but don't want to say something. How does their absence make that more likely? They might otherwise be a vote for conviction. But they're not going to show up. Conceptually, that's sound."

But what if some Republicans do show up and abstain when the roll is called. That's like a vote against conviction, so it would raise the bar for the number of senators needed to remove the president. As Frumin told the Washingtonian, at the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania refused to vote "guilty" or "not guilty," instead registering a vote of "not proven." Chief Justice William Rehnquist tallied that vote as "not guilty."

All this may be fanciful, but it's worth considering by those who view a Senate conviction as impossible.

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As for Warren, the apparent front-runner as Joe Biden fades, she must address how her version of Medicare for All would be paid for. At last Tuesday's Democratic debate, she was evasive at least four times when pressed to acknowledge that taxes would rise for middle-class families, a reality Sanders has conceded while pointing out that overall costs would go down with deductibles, premiums, co-pays and co-insurance fees eliminated.

"I will not sign a bill into law that does not lower costs for middle-class families," Warren declared repeatedly.

But Tuesday's debate standouts, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, weren't buying it. She told Warren.

"We owe it to the American people to tell them where we're going to send the invoice."

With Medicare for All projected to cost from $13 trillion to $32 trillion for 10 years, transparency is vital. A Warren adviser, Robert Pollin, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, proposed a wealth tax on assets over $1 million, a sales tax on nonessential goods, and a tax on businesses with annual revenues of over $1 million.

As he explained it, a family earning $60,000 a year and spending $9,000 on health insurance would, under Medicare for All, pay $900 in additional sales tax and spend no money on health insurance. "Do you really think people care if it's taxes or copays?" he asked. "I mean, they're saving $8,000."

But many families spend far less than that on health insurance, especially if they're covered by their employers and have no catastrophic expenses.

Buttigieg's plan of "Medicare for All Who Want It," a public option preserving private insurance for those who prefer it, is much more sensible. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed that only 42 percent of Democrats strongly favor a Medicare for All system, while 63 percent of them prefer the public option, which is a government insurance plan that would coexist with and compete with private plans and would strengthen President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

This folderol over Medicare for All is academic, a pipe dream anyway. It would take 60 votes to break a for-certain Republican filibuster in order to pass such a plan, and the best-case scenario limits Democrats to an edge of only one or two seats if they manage the heavy lift of recapturing the Senate next year.

Even in the heat of a campaign, there's a need for cool heads and clear thinking.

Information from The Washingtonian and The Boston Globe was included in this commentary.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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