Chuck Schumer–Public Plan Point Man, And Political Barometer

The Senate Finance Committee’s negotiations over the public option have been marked by predictable moments of egotism, chaos, and various other forms of legislative melodrama. But if at the end of the (much delayed) process, the panel chooses to include a public option of any kind in its bill, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will deserve most–if not all–of the thanks.

Back to Schumer in a moment, but it’s worth considering just how important the difference between the two possible outcomes is. As it stands, the other two health care bills working their way through Congress both call for the creation of a public option, but neither is likely to win much, if any, Republican support. If the Finance Committee–more conservative, and more bipartisan–endorses a public option, then it will become a standard feature of the reform landscape, and will live or die with the final reform package. But if it eschews a public option, then the politics change dramatically. Suddenly the public option becomes the province of congressional liberals while the “sensible” centrist position is to delay a public option, or forego it altogether. That’s a tough sell.

And that’s at least part of the reason Schumer’s been so insistent on including a public option–or something very close to it–in the bill the committee eventually unveils. Finance chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) tasked Schumer with being the point man on the public option from the outset of negotiations, but Schumer’s gone above and beyond in that role, putting himself on the line very publicly at times when the momentum on the committee wasn’t really on his side.Last month, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND)–lukewarm on the public option himself–took a stab at reaching a bipartisan compromise by floating the idea of substituting a system of private co-operatives in place of a government-run plan. Reformers weren’t happy, and neither was Schumer. He pulled the plug on the idea, declaring that the sort of co-ops Republicans might accept wouldn’t serve nearly the same function as a national public plan.

This past Sunday, on Face the Nation, Schumer boldly predicted, “there will be a public option in the final bill, some form of it.” And this week, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested the White House might be on board with kicking the public option can down the road a bit, Schumer was perfectly clear. Delaying the creation of a public option is “not good enough.”

Schumer has his share of critics on a number of issues, but inside the beltway, he is known as a pragmatic center-left Democrat, with no shortage of political savvy. His confidence is telling. And if it begins to falter, that would be telling, too.