Right after President Obama was elected in November, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) released a fairly ambitious health care reform policy white paper and held a series of events rolling out his vision for health care reform. Then, in negotiations with his colleagues on the committee, Baucus spent the intervening months chipping away at the key provisions of his plan, including the public option, which has reportedly been dropped and replaced by controversial, private, non-profit co-ops.
Now Baucus says that's all a matter of political necessity. "I want a public option too!" Baucus reportedly told about 40 Montana Democrats a week ago, adding that he also doesn't trust private insurance companies to police themselves and rein in profits and other excesses.
Though the call took place last Monday, the details weren't reported until yesterday, and were quickly picked up by online media outlets including Politico and Huffington Post.
Baucus' staff says that the apparent disconnect between what he's telling party members back home and what he's doing in Washington isn't particularly significant--it's all about the politics. "Senator Baucus included a public option in his November 2008 White Paper, which is essentially his blueprint for reform. A public option has always been on the table," a Finance Committee aide says. "He's said all along that he wants to hold the insurance companies' feet to the fire and there are a lot of ways to do that. The key is putting together a bill that will hold insurance companies accountable and - most importantly - that will pass the Senate."
What exactly does that mean? It's impossible to know what's in Baucus' heart of hearts. But whether he truly supports a public option or not, the aide says that the bill the Finance Committee eventually unveils will represent "what he thinks can pass the Senate."
And given that almost all reports suggest the committee will not endorse a public option, this may well cause reformers some heartburn.
Ed. note: This is an edited version of the original post.