Checkmate: How Joe Lieberman Turned The Public Option Fight On Its Head

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After Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) threw down the gauntlet on the public option, political observers and liberal critics had no shortage of theories. Lieberman was rebelling against the liberal base. Lieberman harbors animosity about 2006. Lieberman is an egotist and wants the spotlight. Any or all of these theories might be true, but they obscured the more important, strategic rationale for his decision: With a 60 member caucus, and little to no Republican support, every Democrat has a pocket veto of the health care bill. Lieberman’s explicit threat to use his veto was, in effect, checkmate on the public option in the Senate, and created breathing room for other public option skeptics to create the bloc that is now negotiating away the public option entirely.

“I think we all came to a similar conclusion. He came to the timing of his announcement, I think, pretty much on his own,” conservative Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) told me of Lieberman’s threat.

So you all sort of knew where each other stood?

“Yes of course. We continued to talk about it. Each of us had a problem, to one degree or another, with the public option.”

I asked, “Did you see it as helpful to your own negotiating on the public option?”

“I don’t think it hurt,” Nelson said.Lieberman’s move could be used as a case study on the importance of leverage in political negotiations.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), another public option opponent, said Lieberman had always opposed the public option, and that his announcement prefigured the current behind-close-doors hand wringing over the provision.

“This has been going on for a long time, and so our caucus is in the process of negotiating with ourselves, because we need all 60 of us to get this done…we knew this day would come and it has come,” she told me and another reporter last week.

For his part, Lieberman himself says he wasn’t specifically trying to turn the public option momentum on its head, and help his centrist colleagues. But hey! All the better.

“I didn’t actually think of it that way, if it had that effect, I’m not unhappy about it,” Lieberman told me. “But I mean the progression here is that I felt from the beginning…the public option, government-created, run insurance company was not a good idea.”

“As we came closer to the vote on cloture on the motion to proceed, and Senator Reid called me and he said, ‘can you vote for it, I’m gonna put a public option in it,’ and I said, ‘you know I’m against the public option. But I want to start the debate and I want to be for health care reform.'”

And then there were some, my colleagues, who said, “well why don’t you negotiate with Harry, see if you can get it out now,” so I said, “I don’t think he wants to negotiate.” I talked to him again, it was pretty clear that he didn’t, so I just thought it was very important to make that clear, to explain why I wanted to–I would vote to open debate on the bill–because I want to support health care reform, but that if there was a public option in it, the only recourse I have…is to vote against cloture.

Now, according to Nelson the opt-out public option isn’t even part of the ongoing discussions between progressive and conservative Democrats, who either need Lieberman, or Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), or both on board for reform to pass. Still in the fold are the trigger compromise (which has Snowe’s support, but not Lieberman’s) and a new proposal to allow consumers to buy non-profit insurance with premiums negotiated by the federal government.

Conservative Democrats would like this latter plan–which isn’t a public option–to replace the measure in the bill, though Snowe told reporters yesterday that the two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, and that it’s likely not a replacement for a trigger. On Saturday, she met with Obama to discuss triggers and other elements of the reform proposal. She described Obama’s position on the triggers as “supportive.”

Senators say they hope to reach a more concrete compromise early this week, perhaps as early as today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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