Public Option’s Fate Foretold In Sputtering Campaign To Get Senators On Board

March 11, 2010 2:38 p.m.

A campaign to rally 50 senators to publicly declare that they support using reconciliation to pass a public option seems to be losing momentum — even as the group behind the campaign insists it’s getting more commitments from senators every day.

That group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, says it has 41 senators on the record. But a closer look suggests some of the latest additions are senators who only conditionally support a public option being passed through reconciliation. And the staff of one senator on this list tells TPMDC he can’t commit to it.At first, senators were signing their names to a letter, written by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), which urged Senate leadership to use reconciliation to pass the public option. Twenty-four, just under half of those needed to pass such a measure, signed.

The last signature, that of Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), came on Feb. 24.

The PCCC has since turned its efforts to getting statements of support, rather than actual signatures, which were easier to come by. They had scored big, getting a statement from Majority Leader Harry Reid saying he’d work on a public option if “a decision is made to use reconciliation to advance health care.” He was followed by five more senators including Majority Whip Dick Durbin (IL), declaring their support all at once, although not signing the letter. That brought the number to 30.

But the latest support rests on increasingly unstable grounds, with recent additions to the list naming multiple caveats. Sen. John Tester (D-MT), for example, said, “It depends on how it was designed.” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said he wouldn’t vote for a public option that reimburses doctors at the Medicare rate. Sen. Russ Feingold’s office told TPM he’d only support a public option that lowers the deficit by $25 billion.

And then there’s Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), who was added to the list this Tuesday. The Huffington Post, which has been asking senators where they stand, wrote:

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) told HuffPost that if the public insurance option comes up for a vote under reconciliation, he will vote for it it. “I would support it, yes,” he said.

But when asked by TPM, Akaka’s spokesman refused to commit to the effort.

“I don’t want to commit him to that hypothetical because we don’t think it’s going to happen,” said the spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke. “This bill has been around for over a year now. They did push for a public option.”

PCCC co-founder Adam Green admitted to TPMDC that the supporters come in three categories: staunch supporters, those who’d support it with caveats, and those, like Dorgan and Tester, who are “leaning.” Tester’s mild statement, Green said, “proves he’s an open-minded person.”

Green also said he’s confident that senators who have been reluctant to sign on, including Sens. Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller, would do so eventually.

To that end, the Huffington Post, in a long story published Thursday, is counting a whopping 52 senators as “gettable.” How do they go from PCCC’s 41 senators all the way to 52? They lower the standard again, this time including those, for instance, who have voiced support for public option in the past, but have yet to sign off on passing it through reconciliation.

That’s not to say the analysis is wrong. But it does require a lot of untested assumptions. And at this point, we’re far beyond a clean signature on a letter.

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