Why the public option is not dead just because it’s in Reid’s hands

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.

7 Responses to “Why the public option is not dead just because it’s in Reid’s hands”

  1. 1 Panos

    Just a few days ago it seemed like Tom Carper’s proposal of a public option with an opt-out choice for the states was gaining steam, even among conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson.
    Whatever happened to that?

  2. 2 Taniel

    Panos, I haven’t seen anything to indicate the opt-out or an opt-in plans have been ruled out. So we might very well see some version of that come out of the merger committee.

    I think Carper is more closely associated with the opt-in than the opt-out, by the way, and progressive groups would far more satisfied with the latter - especially as one version of Carper’s proposal would not allow for states to create a “robust public option,” tied to Medicare rates.

  3. 3 Guy

    It seems that there are others who share my view (as expressed on here a few weeks ago) that Reid is on thin-ice. If he continues to let a few conservative Dems decide what happens then he will go. I saw in another post somewhere “Rather 58 Dem senators and Chuck Schumer as Majority Leader than 60 Dem senators and Reid as leader”. That sums up the choice at this moment. Will be interesting to see what Reid chooses to do.

  4. 4 Bob Fulkerson

    Reid is fighting hard for the best health care bill possible, including a public option. He knows better than the PCCC how to accomplish this.

  5. 5 Cliff

    My question isn’t so much the Senate, where it probably can get through, but the House. It’s my understanding, there are a substantial number of democrats who are against the public option, and at least 70 that say they won’t vote for anything that funds abortion. Since the bill is unlikely to get any Republican votes in the House, how are they going to bridge that divide?

  6. 6 fritz

    As I mentioned in the last post the best way the so called anti PO Democrats can stop the Public Option is to band together to support one of the PO light options (trigger, op-in, op-out etc.)The fact they haven’t done this yet says to me that they are not going to vote against cloture in the end.
    I don’t think anyone knows what Reid’s PO position really is. He seems to be all things to all people and would be a great poker player. How he plays this hand will dictate how he does in 2010.

  7. 7 Taniel

    Cliff, I don’t believe anything in the bill right now is the sort of thing that would make pro-life Democrats balk and vote against it, so that 70 figure doesn’t look like it will have an impact on vote-counting.

    There are a number of Blue Dogs who have expressed opposition to the plan - but then again there have been some Democrats who’ve bucked their party on pretty much every vote except the one for Speaker. Here again, this doesn’t look like it will be decisive for now.

    The third group of Democrats Pelosi will have to win over are progressives, and here there is a very large group - about 60 - who has pledged to vote against any bill that doesn’t have a robust public option. If the Senate wins the day in the conference committee, Obama will have to make a lot of threats and phone calls to convince about 2/3rds of that group to go back on their word.

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