The Senate’s health care bill is now in the hands of a couple of powerful actors charged with merging the Finance Committee and the HELP Committee’s bills: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, committee chairmen Chris Dodd and Max Baucus and, less formally, the White House.
Whatever the merger committee decides on the public option will be of utmost importance since it will be virtually impossible to add or remove it once the bill is on the floor because passing an amendment requires 60 votes. If Reid sends down a bill with a public option, it couldn’t be removed because 51 Democrats are on record supporting it; if he sends down a bill without a public option, there will not be 60 senators to support its inclusion.
Everyone knows this, so keep it in mind when you hear talk of a “compromise” that would have the leadership not include the public option in the bill it sends down to the floor but allow its supporters a chance to pass it on the floor.
So what might impact the merger committee? The most obvious answer is the wishes of the senators’ whose vote on the final bill is still up-for-grabs. Olympia Snowe’s opposition to anything beyond a trigger and 3 Democrats’ committee vote against the inclusion of a public option will weigh on the leadership’s mind, as will Roland Burris repeating his pledge to vote against a public option-less bill.
Yet, talk of the need to insure passage is at least partly for show: no senator has linked his decision on the one vote that will matter - cloture - to the inclusion of the public option. No centrist Democrat have said they’d oppose cloture on the whole bill if it included a government plan: Lieberman (one of a few outspokenly opposed to a public option) just minimized the chance he’d join a filibuster while Pryor went as far as saying he does not think “you’ll see me or any other Democrats” oppose cloture. Similarly, Burris did not specify whether his pledge extended to cloture.
My point: Whatever bill the leadership chooses to send to the floor is more likely than not to pass the chamber without any major modifications. Thus, the public option’s fate is largely dependent on the merger committee’s ideological & political preferences. With Dodd and Baucus on opposing ends and with the White House signaling it won’t help those who want to include a public option (for Valerie Jarrett to state this late in the game that the president is “not demanding” a public option is very meaningful), Reid will play an outsized role in shaping this decision.
That is undoubtedly a scary prospect for liberals, who have largely come to distrust the Majority Leader. Despite Reid’s repeated statements that he supports a public option, his reluctance to limit moderate Democrats’ influence on the chamber would make it a surprise if he did not bow to the desires of his caucus’s centrist wing.
And yet, Reid could find it difficult not to include a public option. One of the most vulnerable senators up for re-election next year, Reid faces a dismal approval rating and the prospect of an unmotivated Democratic base: To secure another term, he will need all the help he can get - including the heavy involvement of unions, without which it should be hard for Reid to ensure high enough turnout in Clark County (Las Vegas) to win statewide.
Yet, progressive groups (not to speak of bloggers like Jane Hamsher) are signaling Reid should not only forget their help, but also count on their hostility if he plays any role in burying the public option. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee just bought $50,000-worth of ad time in Nevada to air a 1-minute ad with the tagline “Is Harry Reid Strong Enough?” The spot features a woman who claims that her vote in 2010 will depend on only one issue - whether Reid can muscle the public option through the Senate:
Reid would be in trouble if Nevada’s Democratic base is any more demobilized than it is nationally. But this ad is especially clever because it is framed to address as independents as much as progressives: It makes the public option a test of Reid’s effectiveness rather than a test of his liberal credentials. One of Reid’s major arguments next year will be that he holds power and influence so he can help Nevada; it certainly doesn’t help his already troubled re-election prospects for an outside group to undermine that claim 13 months from Election Day.
On the other hand, there is no obvious electoral downside to Reid pushing through a public option: A clear majority of Nevadans in general and independents in particular support the creation of a government-administered plan in a September Research 2000 poll.
In short: The political price Reid would pay if he is held responsible for killing the public option is superior to that faced by most Democratic senators. And that’s the best hope liberals have of salvaging a non-triggered public option.