As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tracking The Public Option Through The Senate

Those who have been paying attention understand that today was actually a pretty good day for the public option. We learned that Sens. Wyden, Carper and Nelson (FL) support it in some form, and that there are at least 51 votes for it in the Senate. However, yesterday Chuck Schumer did acknowledge that there aren't 60 votes at this time. Ezra Klein asks the right questions:

There are two questions here. The first is "60 votes for what?" Do they not have 60 votes in favor of a health-care plan that includes a public option? Or do they not have 60 votes against a filibuster of a health-care plan that includes a public option? If it's the former, that's okay: You only need 51. If it's the latter, that's a bigger problem. But I'd be interested to hear which Democrats will publicly commit to filibustering Barack Obama's health-care reform bill. If that's such a popular position back home, why aren't more Democrats voicing it loudly?

Second, why give up the public option now? If these moderates want to kill the measure, let them get full credit for doing so on the floor. They can sponsor an amendment to strip it out of the final legislation and go home to their districts having played a clear and undeniable role in the elimination of the public option.

The former is really the question. There are definitely 51 votes for a public option. It's unclear whether there are 60 for a final bill with a public option. And more specific than that, are there 60 to allow a vote on a final bill with a public option?

Mary Landrieu has come the closest to saying that she would filibuster a bill with a public option. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman are probably right with her. But I'd sure like to see them try to defy the President and doom a health care bill 40 years in the making over one provision. Reconciliation is always an option, given that you would only need 51 votes, but it's highly unlikely to get a public option that way. The main reason is that the Budget Committee would control the process, and Kent Conrad just voted against public option amendments yesterday, and would be highly unlikely to allow one to go through a 51-vote process. Heck, he doesn't want reconciliation at all. So Chris Bowers surmises that Harry Reid and the White House are the real pivot points right now, when the Senate merges the bill from their two committees:

The next step in the process does not actually involve Kent Conrad's Budget Committee, as I had previously reported (the Budget Commitee only comes into play with reconciliation). Instead, a source on the Hill confirms to me the Senate HELP and Senate Finance committees will be merged by an informal, behind the scenes process involving the four major players in the Senate: Tom Harkin (Chair of HELP), Max Baucus (Chair of Finance), Harry Reid (Majority Leader), and the White House. Together, these four will meet and decide what sort of bill to send to the Senate floor for debate and amendments.

During this process, we can guarantee that Harkin will push for a HELP or Schumer-like public option to be sent the floor, while Baucus will push for no public option to be in the bill at all. Given his recent statements, the best bet is that Reid will probably push against a public option too, and instead favor either triggers (which he has called a good idea) or co-ops (which seems to be the sort of public option he likes best). With two against and one in favor, this means that the only way a public option ends up in the bill that is sent to the Senate floor will be if the fourth major player, the White House, demands it.
It is all up to the White House now. If it pushes for a public option to be included in the health care bill sent to the Senate floor, then a public option will pass as part of health care reform (at that point, all we would need are 60 votes for cloture, and from what I hear we have 57 already). However, if it allows a health care bill to go to the floor without a public option, it is pretty unlikely that a public option will pass as part of health care reform.

Bowers doesn't think any floor amendment would need less than 60 votes, and while there are conflicting reports on that, he's probably right. He also doesn't think conference committee is an option, but I'm not sure I agree there. The House will almost certainly pass a bill with a public option. So it would depend on the White House umpiring that argument in committee. And that will almost certainly be decided by what they think can pass. If the Progressive Block in the House holds firm, and looks like a higher mountain to climb than getting 3 Democrats just to flip on cloture, the White House could go the other way at any step of this process.

Igor Volsky thinks we may see a new compromise floated:

Instead, the very same Democrats who defeated the national program during mark-up, will likely resurrect a discarded idea floated by the New America Foundation and momentarily embraced by the White House. That compromise will create a network of public options modeled on state employee benefit plans. The proposal could be triggered by Snowe’s amendment if reform did not meet a low affordability measure, but any state-based proposal would lack the market clout to lower overall health care spending, reform health care delivery, or hold private health insurers accountable.

Today may have been the death of the public option and the birth of state-based public options.

State-based plans won't have the economies of scale to really pressure insurers, but neither would Schumer's "level playing field" public option. Therefore, given that we're going to have to improve whatever inevitably comes out of the legislation, I'm inclined to say this is better than nothing. Apparently Tom Carper has started floating this behind the scenes.

I'm not as optimistic as Robert Creamer, but I do think that the public option still has a chance to survive in some form, and can be improved after the fact.

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