Progressives Begin to Wobble on Public Option Commitment

September 8, 2009 8:27 a.m.

At least four signatories to a July letter drawing a line in the sand over a public option have suggested that they may be willing to support a compromise proposal to “trigger” a public option only as a fallback if other reforms don’t produce results on their own.

“Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, for a public option with reimbursement rates based on Medicare rates…is unacceptable,” the letter read. “We simply cannot vote for such a proposal.”

Among the signatories were Reps. Mike Capuano (D-MA) Jim McGovern (D-MA), Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), and Sam Farr (D-CA), who now say that definitions of “public option” may vary.“That’s why we used words like ‘robust’ — because it’s in the eye of the beholder,” Capuano told Roll Call. “We’ll make our independent judgments.”

“It depends on how strong that trigger is,” Farr added. “The only way I could see it getting progressive votes is by making sure the public option is strong and goes into operation.”

“This is a way to get a bill,” Pascrell said of triggers. “I believe it’s worth listening to because I want legislation that is going to, in some shape or form, expand coverage and bring down the cost of health care.”

And McGovern noted “there may be a variety of ways of getting there than the one I originally formulated in my mind.”

Four votes out of about sixty signatories isn’t a ton–but it’s not nothing either, especially as the trigger mechanism compromise seems to be gaining traction in the White House and Senate. McGovern is a pretty big hitter, for instance, and one House Democratic aide tells me his position “is where a lot of people are.”

The shakiness, such as it is, comes at a time when Blue Dog Democrats are voicing stronger objections to House legislation than they were earlier this summer. Rep. Mike Ross (D-AR), leader of the Blue Dog’s health care task force, has gone on the record with constituents saying he’ll oppose any bill with a public option, and The Hill reports that up to 23 House Blue Dogs are suggesting they’ll oppose the bill from the right.

Why would progressives wobble? There are a number of explanations. Perhaps chief among them is the fact that party leaders believe failure to pass a bill would be a political disaster–and that, hailing from safe districts, progressives can afford to vote against their constituents more easily than Blue Dogs can. Separately, many, like Capuano, believe that a half-loaf is better than no loaf at all–that spending hundreds of billions of dollars to expand health care access to the poor and uninsured, even in an inefficient way that redounds to the benefit of health insurers, is a step in the right direction.

That said, some key progressives–notably Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ health care task force–still say they can’t vote for a bill unless it creates a public option with no triggers. If House leaders decide that compromising further on the public option is the way to go, they’ll have to chip away significantly at the progressive bloc. Assuming no GOP support, Democrats can only afford to lose 38 votes within their caucus, which means they’ll need a lot more than four defectors to get a bill through.

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