In public option battle, focus shifts away from Reid and Nelson, to Obama

[Updated, see bottom]

Momentum has been building quickly for the public option since the Finance Committee passed the only version of the health care bill devoid of a government-run plan. Over on the House, reports suggested Nancy Pelosi was willing to send to the floor the most liberal version of the public option - a “robust” plan tied to Medicare rates plus 5%. Over on the Senate, 52 Democrats were on record as supporting a national public option (albeit a “weak” one), with the last bastions of centrist resistance fading away.

Max Baucus, who for weeks insisted that a public option should not be included because it would prevent a bill from getting 60 votes, declared that a “less pure” kind of public option could pass the chamber. And he declared that he was more open to an opt-out mechanism than to a co-op plan or a trigger, perceived to be more centrist options.

Then, it was Kent Conrad’s turn to acknowledge that the bill to be sent to the floor might have some form of public option after all in terms that included no threat that he was looking to filibuster such a reform. Mark Pryor made it clear he was highly unlikely to oppose cloture. The most surprising statement - at least in my view - came from Ben Nelson, who joined Baucus in touting the viability of an opt-out mechanism: Coming from someone who has been opposed to a public option, that pronouncement was quite a victory for progressives.

Add to that what looked like deliberate leaks by the Senate leadership that the public option had the votes to pass the Senate, and it looked increasingly likely that Harry Reid would include a government-run plan in the bill he sent to the floor - at the very least a plan with an opt-out mechanism. (I explain here why Reid’s decision is very important, since it will be virtually impossible to add or remove anything from the bill once he sends it to the floor.)

What was the Senate Majority Leader waiting for? TPM reported that Reid was unwilling to take the decision if he did not receive the White House’s blessing - which is to be understood not only as political cover (Reid does not want to blear the blunt of centrist anger) but also as a guarantee that Obama is willing to work the phones helping Reid pass the bill he’s sent to the floor. But TPM added that the White House was refusing to signal it would back Reid’s decision - a position that isn’t surprising given Valerie Jarrett’s week-end statement that Obama was “not demanding” a public option.

The plot thickened last night, once information started trickling out about what had transpired in a meeting between Obama and Senate leaders. All reports agree that Reid is leaning towards including a national public option with an opt-out provision - something ABC also reported before the meeting. But different press outlets received contradictory leaks about Obama’s attitude: two versions are now being reported.

  1. Politico’s version, backed by CNN: Reid said he believed he had the votes to get a bill with a public option past cloture but Obama explicitly said he preferred a bill with a trigger mechanism - a version that is a line in the only for Olympia Snowe.
  2. The New York Times’s version: While Reid confirmed he was looking to including a public option, but Obama “did not express a preference.”

It is perfectly plausible that the former version has been leaked by staffers of centrist Senators who are trying to slow down the public option’s momentum by making it seem like it is opposed by the White House. At the very least, however, Politico’s report is consistent with our knowledge that Rahm Emanuel has been more explicitly pushing for a trigger for months.

But the latter version of events isn’t that much more reassuring for progressives who are hoping to get a public option. For a week now, we’ve been hearing that Reid is perfectly willing to include sort of public option and that many centrists are resigned to that prospect. As such, Obama is now the primary obstacle left to the inclusion of a public option - whether he stated his preference for a trigger or whether he simply refused to say he would be fine with Reid taking that route.

On the one hand, this has been a long time coming: Obama’s speech to Congress in early September contained explicit warnings to the left not to insist on the public option, and in recent weeks the president has repeatedly instructed liberals not to be unhappy with Baucus’s bill.

On the other hand, it is quite stunning. Obama has said for months that his preference is for a bill to contain a public option; yet, he is now either refusing to express a preference or outright opposing a public option’s inclusion. Also, it is one thing for him not to actively help liberals promote the public option - it is another thing for him to signal discomfort when the Senate Majority Leader is signaling he’s leaning towards including it.

This debate is far from over, and the ball is still in Harry Reid’s hands: Unless they want to take the risk of endangering the entire reform project, the White House would have little choice but to work the phones for whatever bill he sends to the floor. And what Nancy Pelosi decides to do over on her side is just as important: If the House comes to the conference committee with a “Medicare plus five” public option in its bill, it will be harder for Senate negotiators to insist the public option be fully dropped.

Update: TPM, which can hardly be accused of looking to create artificial division within the Democratic Party, independently sources that the White House “is pushing against” the idea of a non-triggered plan and that Obama has emerged “as an opponent of all but the most watered down form of public option.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that Harry Reid looks increasingly determined to defy the White House & Snowe and is trying to round up 60 votes!

6 Responses to “In public option battle, focus shifts away from Reid and Nelson, to Obama”


  1. 1 Guy

    Fascinating. Obama may have had a reason not to push the public option if he thought it would fail - excessively cautious but whatever. If however it turns out that Reid has said yes we can pass a public option plan then Obama will have major problems with the party if he is the one to say no. I cannot believe he would stand against the wishes of the majority of his party and by polling the American people. If he does then he will pay a steep political price (I can hardly see Pelosi wanting to do him favors in the future).

  2. 2 Chicago Joe

    It seems that Valerie Jarrett is pushing back against the Politico story: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/10/23/796285/-Jarrett-on-Pres.-Obama:-Hes-committed-to-the-public-option

    Not sure this is the ironclad commitment on Obama’s part that the Kos blogger thinks it is, but it seems his position is more favorable to the PO than either Politico or the NYTimes indicate.

  3. 3 Taniel

    Chicago Joe,

    Jarrett was on TV this past week-end insisting that the White House was “not demanding” a public option. And it’s been months Emanuel and Sebelius are explicitly sending a similar message. The White House periodically says it would prefer a public option, but not only is it often accompanied by lots of caveats (see Obama’s speech to Congress) but it does little to contradict the mass of evidence suggesting they have done nothing to get it included in the bill (compare the intensity of Obama’s recent statements praising the Baucus bill with what the WH has said about the public option) - and that they are now giving Reid no cover in his efforts to put in the Senate bill. As I mentioned, we don’t have to believe the Politico story to conclude that Obama is behaving more like an opponent than a facilitator of the public option.

  4. 4 Chicago Joe

    How is this morning’s interview “giving Reid no cover”? At minimum this expressly contradicts the NYTimes “no preference” storyline.

  5. 5 Taniel

    That the President gives speeches urging liberals to embrace the Baucus bill while sending an adviser on TV to one day say Obama is “not demanding” a public option, another day say he’s “committed” to it seems to me a clear reflection of the White House’s goals. Given the avalanche of reports all week (not just in today’s New York Times) that are portraying Obama as more reluctant to embrace a public option in Senate negotiations than is Max Baucus, the WH would have found a far less ambiguous way of denying its role in slowing down Reid if that’s what it wanted.

    However, if you are right and Obama is serious about pushing this, the public option is very likely to be included in the bill (at least in its opt-out form) since Baucus seems resigned to it, Reid is leaning towards it and Dodd is obviously in favor. So the merger committee would be quite a PO-friendly place.

  6. 6 Guy

    The PO may be in the final bill even if Obama does give Reid “cover”. Remember Reid has to hold together his caucus of which the vast majority (52 out of 60) now support the PO. Also he has to think of his own position in next year’s election.
    The intriguing question is - why is Obama ambivalent on the PO. Does he seek “bipartisanship” so much that he would give anything for ONE GOP senator?

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