[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.
- 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.
- 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!