The Nelson/Landrieu Conundrum
A recent AARP poll shows 79% support for a public option competing with private insurance companies, although the poll question is kind of odd and doesn't reflect what's on offer. Nevertheless, other polls that accurately depict the public option show support in that range. However, that is not equally spread throughout the country. For instance, in a conservative state like Nebraska, more people don't support a public option (by a plurality) in health care reform, for whatever reason, and Democrat Ben Nelson gets 56% support for his handling of health care thus far. We don't have hard data on Louisiana, but Mary Landrieu, who has actually more strongly opposed a public insurance option than Nelson, may also be more in line with the interests of her state than some realize.
Speaking before what was described as a friendly crowd at the Monroe Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Sen. Mary Landrieu said she was opposed to much of the Democrats' legislative agenda.
Asked under what circumstances she would support a public option, Landrieu responded, "[v]ery few, if any. I'd prefer a private market-based approach to any health care reform that would extend coverage," according to the Monroe News Star.
"I'd like to cover everyone -- that would be the moral thing to do -- but it would be immoral to bankrupt the country while doing so," Landrieu said. The public option as currently conceived is expected to be a deficit reducer.
Dishonest? Absolutely. But out of step? Perhaps not.
What can we realistically expect from Democrats like this in red states? Obviously, under a "split the bill" scenario, they could signal support for the more broadly popular elements of reform, like insurance regulations, while opting out of the more controversial elements that only require a 60-vote standard. Or, they could simply opt to allow cloture, the wish of the majority of their caucus, while voting against the final bill. Markos polled this in the case of Nelson:
If Ben Nelson joined Republican Senators in filibustering and killing a final health care bill because it had a public health insurance option would that make you more or less likely to vote for him or would it have no real effect on your vote?
We can assume Nelson will vote against any bill with a robust public option. The big question is whether he will join Republicans in filibustering such a bill. Nebraska Republicans would sure love that, but at the end of the day, they'll vote for a real Republican in a contested election. Nelson would gain a small sliver from Independents, per this poll, but his real danger is among Democrats -- where he would lose a full 17 points of support [...]
If Nelson was to play this properly, he'd vote against any robust public option (and be justified doing so, given his constituency), but allow an up-or-down vote on the bill. Given the political realities of his state, that's the best we could hope for.
How can we position this so that Nelson comes around to this reality? I would look at how Republicans are pressuring Chuck Grassley. Grassley has something only the caucus can give him - the ranking membership of the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Budget Committee. And so he feels the pull from his members to not join in any bipartisan deal. Nelson and Landrieu both have pretty low seniority at the moment, although there's been a near-historic amount of turnover in the Senate recently. But if they have any designs on better committee assignments, or eventual chairmanships, the caucus should inform them of how they would do best to stay in their good graces. This pressure, by the way, should theoretically be much stronger on a Max Baucus or Kent Conrad, who already have that seniority. In addition, Landrieu and Nelson should be asked, pointedly, if they want to go down in history as having stopped access to health care for all Americans for a generation.