Will Health Care Reform All Come Down To Ben Nelson?

Half a day later, we know a lot more about where the key players who will determine the fate of health care reform stand on a burgeoning public option compromise. Unfortunately, there’s still a substantial lack of clarity about where we go from here.

The long and short of it is this: It is possible that Democrats will reach a consensus on a plan to trade the public option for several concessions, including a plan, supported by progressives, to allow people age 55-64 to buy into Medicare. That could be the grand bargain that allows health care to pass the Senate. But not a single Republican–including Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)–seems to support the ideas on offer. And with Democrats unable to lose a single vote, one of them–Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE)–could defect over the issue of abortion.

As I reported this afternoon, Snowe (R-ME) says she’s not a fan of the ideas coming out of series of meetings between Democrats seeking accord on the public option. Snowe didn’t explicitly say she’d filibuster the health care bill if that compromise emerges, but she has told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid she doesn’t support the idea.

That makes it seem quite likely that Reid needs all 60 of his members to support whatever compromise comes out of the negotiations. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) made no promises, but seemed open to the trade-off on the table. Optimistically, that makes 59.That leaves Nelson. Nelson is threatening to filibuster over a different issue: abortion. He wants the health care bill to prevent the millions of people who would be receiving federal insurance subsidies from buying policies that cover abortion. His amendment, codifying that idea, is not expected to pass.

Reid says he’s happy to continue negotiating with Nelson if his abortion measure goes down in smoke. And perhaps Nelson will take a second crack at a compromise, or will relent on his filibuster threat. But we likely won’t know until after his amendment goes down.

At his weekly press conference today, I asked Reid what his next move is if Nelson defects. Reid suggested more compromise is the only option. “The purpose of legislation is to build consensus,” Reid said. “It’s not often that you have a piece of legislation that is perfect. But we can not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) was a bit more dramatic “I’m unafraid of everything, and afraid of everything. I’m exactly where I should be…. we have no votes to lose.”