The Public Option Lost Today, But Future Fights Could Be Less Daunting

September 29, 2009 2:06 pm

The spin war is on to frame today’s losing public option votes in the Senate Finance Committee. And though no reformer can honestly say today’s news was good news, they’re also on perfectly safe ground saying that today’s news was expected, and that the public option is in no worse shape today than it was yesterday.What we now know for sure is that conservative Democrats’ opposition to a public option tied to Medicare runs significantly deeper than it does to a public option that uses negotiated rates. From a set that often bows to Republican attacks on big government, that’s not a big surprise, though substantively it makes a big difference.

We also know that none of the Democrats who voted against the modest public option proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) say they’re dead set against the public option in general–they have concerns sure, but, as always, they reverted to the dodgy explanation that they don’t think a public option can survive on the Senate floor.

And therein lies the hope for reformers.

If Conrad, Baucus, et al are right about that, it means that there are members of the 60-large Democratic caucus threatening to join a Republican filibuster of a health care bill that includes a public option. As far as reformers are concerned that’s a problem for Harry Reid and President Obama to solve–and they’d better solve it.

But even if these senators are just making excuses, or they still need more time to think, they won’t be able to hide much longer.

Soon, Reid will have to decide whether or not to import the HELP Committee’s public option into the package he brings to the floor. If he does, it would completely shift the onus on to the skeptics. As it stands liberals are forced to make the push for the public option; if Reid adopts it, conservative Democrats would be smoked out: either they’d have to accept it, or come out strongly against it by voting with Republicans to strip it, or by filibustering the entire bill.

But he probably won’t do that. So what then?

Assuming he doesn’t (a safe assumption) there will be more amendments, and, soon enough, the entire Democratic caucus will have to go on the record anyhow. That will be a key test.

And to take things one step further still, if a public option is not in the final bill that passes the Senate, Democratic leaders could still adopt one in negotiations with the House of Representatives. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if they do, then conservative Democrats will have to decide yet again whether it’s worth tanking the entire reform project over the inclusion of a fairly modest provision.

That’s a lot of choke points, and a lot of pressure on public option skeptics. So while it’s much too early to predict what will happen, it’s also extremely premature to say the public option fight is over. As you can see, there are much more favorable battlefields ahead.

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