The High Drama Behind Reid’s Public Option Decision

October 28, 2009 2:40 p.m.

Today, everyone’s officially on the same page. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and his leadership team, and the White House all stand behind the Senate health care bill, which, as we learned this week, includes a public option. But the days leading up to Reid’s big Monday announcement were perhaps more trying for leading Democrats than has been publicly acknowledged, or than today’s picture of calm would lead you to believe.

Much of the hoopla surrounding Reid’s decision centers around a tense Thursday night meeting between President Obama and Senate health care principals–including Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)–at the White House. But according to sources briefed on White House-Senate health care negotiations, things began boiling over earlier in the week, when a key question was, Who’s going to take the blame when the public option doesn’t make it in to the base health care bill?

According to a source briefed on White House-Senate health care negotiations, the public option’s saving grace was its political popularity with the Democratic base. The source described the back and forth between Senate health care principals and the White House as a “sort of stare down where the two sides were saying, ‘you be the face of pulling it out.’ Reid wants Obama to do it to give cover to his caucus, Obama wants Reid to do it so he’s not the bad guy on the public option, and can still walk away with a win with reform, with bipartisanship, and with a card for everybody running for re-election.”According to a separate source close to both parties, administration officials pushed hard against the idea of Reid backing the measure. “I started hearing…in the days before [the Thursday meeting], that the White House was trying to fuck with them on this whole thing, and that was very much of a thread throughout the days before.”

On the morning of the meeting, anonymous sources–and even some high profile senators–came forward to say that Reid was leaning very heavily toward backing the public option. And that’s the news he and other senators brought to the White House that night.

“Reid actually asked Schumer to make the pitch,” the first source said. When he did, “Obama was less than responsive and asked questions that suggested he preferred an option that could get the trigger and bipartisan support.”

How the meeting ended remains unclear. But what we do know is that, early Friday morning–hours after the parties went their separate ways–Politico‘s Mike Allen reported that, according to a top administration official, Obama’s preference was still for triggers, and he’d let the senators know that.

Multiple sources–including Schumer himself–now dispute this interpretation, saying instead that Obama merely pushed hard to make sure leadership had the politics right. But what’s interesting is not so much what Allen’s source said, but where Allen’s source came from: The White House. Perhaps Obama didn’t explicitly oppose Reid’s plan. But after the meeting broke that night, somebody wanted to make crystal clear where the White House stood.

There has been plenty of speculation, but it’s still unknown who went whispering to Allen. It’s also not completely obvious what the ploy was: A final warning shot across Reid’s bow? A bid to get ahead of the news stories that both the White House and Senate aides knew were coming?

If the hope was to get Reid into line, though, the leak may have had the opposite effect. That Friday, Senate sources told reporters, including myself, that the White House was pushing back against Reid’s decision.

In the ensuing political melee progressive activists and strategists made one final push to get the administration on board–or at least quiet their resistance–and discussions between principals continued through the weekend.

In the end, Reid and Schumer did exactly what they told the White House they wanted to do. The administration (or at least one senior administration official) did not get its way. And yet, during his Monday announcement, Reid insisted that the President stood behind his decision, and all parties have basically pushed the same line ever since. Perhaps that’s true. But even if it is, the turbulent road to unanimity can’t be forgotten by the players involved. And for all the intrigue and drama behind closed doors, the result of the showdown will likely be remembered, for better or worse, as one of the most pivotal moments in this year’s endless tug of war over health care reform.

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