In it, but not of it. TPM DC

How Outside Groups And Vulnerable Dems Gave The Public Option A New Pulse

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"In about a week we got 118 people on the letter in the House," Green says.

To build on that success, the groups and members needed a parallel effort in the Senate. For that, Polis turned to his Colorado co-delegate, Sen. Michael Bennet.

"We were looking for a similar effort on the Senate side, and thinking of who would be a credible," Green says. "[Polis] apparently called Bennet personally."

The fruits of joining the push were undeniable: favorable press coverage, and a groundswell of support from the grassroots. Bennet's team bit.

"They decided they wanted to do it, and they brought in [Sherrod] Brown and [Jeff] Merkley and we reached out to Gillibrand's folks and brought them in," Green says.

Bennet's staff says that they're not treating the public option as a make or break issue, but that they're extremely pleased that the conversation has grown as quickly as it has. All parties--the outside groups, the public option backers in the Senate, Democratic leadership--have been surprised by the momentum. Many of them pleasantly. Days after the push began in earnest, the Senate letter has already been signed by 23 members.

"I would credit a lot the Netroots and then working with members who had already been previously supportive, and members who have been in tough positions for re-election," says a top Democratic Senate aide.

"We progressed faster than we expected on the Senate side," Green says.

"Bennet coming out first really helped with credibility, same with Gillibrand," Green says. (Both Bennet and Gillibrand are up for re-election.) "On the way picking up Tom Udall, picking up Jeanne Shaheen--who are not voices you usually hear on the public option--really helped."

The support from leadership put the effort into overdrive.

"With Schumer and Menendez it's a poitcal validator, because you know they won't back something that's a political loser," Green says. "Harry Reid is like a leadership validator. People who sign the letter aren't at odds with leadership anymore. They're saying they have Reid's back."

The result has been a cascade of support from across the Democratic party--including, yesterday, the addition of Sen. Tim Johnson of conservative South Dakota to the list of signatories. And that could lead to more.

"Ultimately we want to get to 50. Our short term goal is to get to 40 which would build an air of inevitability around this. At this rate, we're picking up one or two a day, a week from now we should be approaching 40," Green says.

Of course, there have been some setbacks. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)--a die-hard public option supporter--came out against the strategy yesterday. And procedural questions remain unanswered. The groups want the public option to be built in to the reconciliation bill from the get go. That would lock it in, forcing leadership to find 50 votes for it. Leadership, though, may be more inclined to allow an up or down vote on a public option amendment, so that the hunt for 50 votes doesn't imperil the entire health care reform effort.

"We're not willing to go down the same path I think that we went down in December where we see things fall apart over one specific provision," says a Dem leadership aide.

A few things are perfectly clear: The White House isn't helping in this effort at all. And some Democrats, both among the rank and file, and in leadership, are nervous about the push. But the popularity of the provision, both among Democratic members and the voting public have thusfar provided enough of a counterweight to keep the public option an open question.

About The Author

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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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