If Lieberman Doesn’t Back Off His Threat, Democrats Face Unappealing Options

December 14, 2009 7:20 a.m.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was apparently caught unawares by Sen. Joe Lieberman’s latest assault on health care reform, and that’s left Democratic leadership scrambling to figure out how to cobble together a bill that can get 60 votes on the Senate floor, without creating a tremendous head ache down the line when the House and Senate meet to tie their bills together.

Assuming that Lieberman can’t be persuaded to back down from his threat to filibuster the bill unless all public option compromises are stripped from it, here are the options before the Democrats:1). Scotch the Medicare buy-in and instead court Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), who would support a triggered public option. That would still lose Lieberman’s vote, but preserve the barest hope for a public option in the future, and create a path to 60. Snowe, though, has said she’s unlikely to support any bill unless Democrats slow things down, and don’t hold votes until January.

2). Strip the bill of the public option with an opt out, but don’t replace it with any public alternatives: no Medicare buy-in, no triggers. This would be a huge near-term defeat for progressives, and one they’d be very reluctant to take lying down. In fact, it’s unlikely that they’d swallow it unless they were promised that the public option (or something like it) would be added down the line via the 51-vote budget reconciliation process. Since the bill’s main reforms don’t take effect for years, the public option (or a Medicare buy-in) could be adopted separately, though that would touch off yet another heated political fight in the months ahead.

3). Call Lieberman’s bluff. It would be a daring move, but Reid could dare Lieberman to cast the deciding vote against reform. There’d obviously have to be a back-up plan, though, and in this case, the only clear option would be to revitalize the budget reconciliation process, and pass a different bill that would only need 51 votes. That would be a hard slog–leadership has all but foreclosed on the idea. But it’s just about the only point of leverage leadership has over Lieberman–that his threats won’t be effective–and unless he can be convinced by other means, Democrats may not have much choice.

The fact that, for the time being, staffers across the party seem to be returning to a consistent theme–that Lieberman once supported the policy he’s now threatening to filibuster–suggests they hope to change his mind by shaming him publicly. But if that effort fails, the menu of options before the Democrats isn’t particularly appetizing.

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