Getting a Public Option

Today's a big day for the public option in the Senate. According to ABC News' Jonathan Karl, it's "high noon," only without Gary Cooper.

I am told that Senators Chuck Schumer and Jay Rockefeller will force a roll-call vote tomorrow morning in the Senate Finance Committee on two amendments that would create a government-run insurance program – a top priority for liberal Democrats that was left out of the bill drafted by Finance Chairman Max Baucus.

The amendments are not likely to pass because they will be opposed by all Republicans, and at least four Democrats on the committee are cool to the idea of a public option (Lincoln, Carper, Conrad, Bill Nelson), but Schumer has been trying to negotiate with those Democrats to craft a version of the public option they could support.

"If the amendments fail," Karl writes, "it would appear the public option is all but dead in the Senate (although liberals will try to resurrect it when the full Senate takes up the bill)."

Whether Schumer can succeed here is questionable at best. There was a time when the US Senate was known as the place where cooler heads prevail, but lately it seems to have become the place where good ideas come to die. Still, dead in committee is not dead, as Karl points out. It can always be restored by the full Senate.

It's in the House of Representatives that the interesting things are happening and may give us a peek at what will happen in the Senate.

In the people's house, things seem to be going pretty damned well. If Nancy Pelosi had shown this kind of leadership when Bush was in office, I might be selling t-shirts with Bush's, Cheney's, and Rove's mugshots on them. If there was ever a time to decide to become excellent, I guess now is a close second to then. On the public option, she's been rock solid.

Yesterday, the news came out that Speaker Pelosi shot down the idea of a public option "trigger" -- the idea that a government-run insurance program would kick in automatically if other reforms don't work. This is a pretty dumb idea, in that it creates a superfluous step. If you need a trigger, it shows that you have no confidence in the other reforms. It's like having a spare for a car whose tires are never supposed to go flat. In the end, all it does is buy insurance lobbyists time to undo or weaken reforms before the deadline comes up.

"I don't even want to talk about a trigger," she said at a press conference yesterday, adding that the "attitude" of House Democrats is that "a trigger is an excuse for not doing anything." I concluded that she knew the vote count and knew she had the votes to get it out of her chamber easily. Over at Huffington Post, reporter Ryan Grim proved my guess correct.

Blocking a public health insurance option is a relatively low priority for conservative Blue Dog Democrats, according to an ongoing survey of its members. The fading House opposition could clear the way for the public option to move through the chamber.

The Blue Dogs have been surveying their membership over the last several days; coalition co-chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) has been collecting the responses. She listed the four top priorities that have emerged: Keeping the cost under $900 billion, not moving at a faster pace than the Senate, getting a 20-year cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office and addressing regional disparities in Medicare reimbursement rates.

So, the Huffington Post asked, the public option is not a top priority?

"Right, the group is somewhat split," she said.

I'm a little lost on why it's of earth-shattering importance that the House not move "at a faster pace than the Senate." You're done when you're done, there's no reason to stretch things out needlessly -- unless, of course, you want to delay things and buy lobbyists and reform opponents (i.e., Republicans) time. There is no logical reason to worry about how fast you're able to accomplish something -- at least, not a constructive reason.

Still, the public option will come out of the House. That seems to be a near-certainty. If it dies in the Senate Finance Committee (which I'm just hearing has not voted for the public option and won't until Tuesday), there's still the full Senate.

And if it dies in the Senate, there's still the conference committee. Until an actual bill is sent to the White House, a public option is still alive and well.

If the Blue Dogs in the House represent an accurate sample of the Blue Dogs as a whole, then opposition to the public option is weak. If Pelosi sends fighters, not negotiators, to the conference committee, we'll likely get what we want. The Blue Dogs, who are the real speedbumps to reform (Republicans have rendered themselves irrelevant) are the ones with the shaky knees this time around. It sounds like few are willing to go down with the ship.

If you haven't written or called your Senator on this issue yet, now would be an excellent time. If you already have, now would be an excellent time to do it again. Fence-sitters can be pushed, those who are solid on the public option can be encouraged, and those who are against it can be rattled.

If we try hard enough, we can get what we want.


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