Schumer: We Prevailed On White House That Public Option Was The Way To Go

October 26, 2009 3:41 p.m.

So how did we go from a White House at loggerheads with the Senate leadership last Thursday night over a public option, to a deal today that’s exactly what the leadership wanted?

This evening I spoke with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who was in that infamous Thursday night meeting with President Obama and other Senate leaders–and who has been one of the most persistent advocates of a public option on Capitol Hill. As Schumer explains it, the disagreement between the White House and Senate wasn’t substantive so much as it was tactical: The White House had its doubts that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could really get 60 votes for a public option with an opt out for states.

“The President listened very carefully,” Schumer said in an interview moments ago. “He wanted to make sure that the strategy upon which we were embarking had the ability to carry through.”

Schumer has been at the center of the fight over the public option from the earliest days of the health care debate–always there to pull it back from the brink when it at times seemed on the verge of collapse. This situation was no different. After the Thursday meeting, four sources in different Democratic offices told me that the White House had suggested they believed a strategy of pursuing Sen. Olympia Snowe’s preferred compromise–a triggered public option–might be an easier path to 60 votes. In the end, though, Schumer and the rest of leadership seem to have prevailed upon President Obama that they’ve picked the right strategy.

“I think substantively the White House probably preferred a stronger public option than a trigger,” Schumer said. “We talked about this for a while in leadership and the White House wanted to hear our thoughts–and when they heard them they thought that this was the right strategy to get our caucus together.”

Today, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the President stands behind Reid as he builds support for the public plan.

“A lot of people around here have faith in Harry Reid’s abilty to count votes,” Schumer told me.Does that mean that triggers are dead? Schumer wouldn’t characterize things that way, but he did note that, as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) suggested, the move risked alienating many in the caucus.

“I think that, to many many people in the caucus…the trigger was never very attractive. I think it was Jay Rockefeller that said whenever you have the trigger, it never goes into effect,” Schumer said.

At the very least, then, triggers were dealt a very serious blow today. But what happens now in the House? Should leaders there settle on a public option with negotiated rates to minimize the differences between their bill and the Senate’s bill? Or should House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keep pushing for a public option that sets reimbursement rates slightly above Medicare’s, to ensure that the most robust public option on offer gets a hearing in the final negotiations?

Schumer’s mostly mum, “each body has to find its sort of middle point in the Democratic caucus, and I think this is the middle point in the Senate.”

But, he says, the public option will redound to Democrats’ benefit in the end.

“I think the public is for the public option. During those bad days in mid-summer, the dog days of August, the hard right misinformed the public as to what a public option was.” Schumer says. “They said it was a mandate.”

“I had lots of people coming up to me to say ‘I like my insurance, why are you forcing me,'” into a government health care plan. But ultimately, he says, Democrats’ repetition of the word “option,” and the theme “choice,” helped them win the argument with the public.

I asked Schumer whether he thinks Democrats made the right decision by calling it “the public option” instead of using the Medicare brand name to make it more appealing to the public.

“Yes, definitely,” Schumer said. “In America, people like choices.”

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