The Public Option Lives. Wow.

by Jonathan Cohn | October 26, 2009

By now you've heard the news: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be including an "opt-out" variation on the public plan in the health care bill he brings to the Senate floor.

It is not a full public option. It will not use reimbursements pegged to Medicare. As Ezra Klein says, it is still a major compromise for liberals. And yet it's also a lot more than liberals seemed likely to get, as recently as a few weeks ago.

Indeed, it is hard to overstate what a turnaround this is--or how quickly it happened. By late summer, passing any reform at all looked like a fifty-fifty proposition at best. And even as the political environment shifted, the public option looked doomed. It was going to take sixty votes to get a public option through the Senate. The votes just weren't there.

To be clear, they still aren't there.

The buzz is that Reid has between fifty-six and fifty-eight votes. And getting those last few won't be easy. Senators Mary Landrieu (Louisana), Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas), and Ben Nelson (Nebraska) haven't ruled out voting for a bill with an opt-out. But they've made very clear it's not anywhere near their first choice.

Maine Republican Olympia Snowe seems even more opposed. And, unlike the centrist Democrats, she's invested a huge amount of time in trying to make her own favored compromise (a public option trigger) work. Getting her on board with an opt-out will be even tougher.

Her vote is obviously not necessary if the Democratic caucus stays united. Word is that all of the wavering Democrats understand the importance of passing reform, which means nothing more than maintaining party unity on the key procedural question of whether to end the inevitable Republican filibuster. Once the filibuster is broken, centrists can vote however they want; Democrats have the simple majority they need to pass a bill. And that's not to mention the myriad ways of dicing the bill--and handing out amendments--in order to give every member a chance to look good for home audiences.

But make no mistake: The centrists have the power to kill the public option. And they may still wield it. Among other things, it's possible that the lobbying against the public plan is about to intensify. Like the rest of Washington, K Street had fallen into a sort of complacency about the public plan. It just didn't seem that likely to happen. You can bet they are paying attention now. And making plans.

Indeed, plenty of observers (and insiders) remain skeptical. The smart aleck take is that Reid is doing primarily to quiet down the left--to prove, to liberal activists and more liberal members of his caucus, that he's listening to them and that they have influence. The same has been said about Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is busy pushing her caucus to unite behind an even stronger public option.

That seems overstated to me. I think both are pushing for stronger public options because they like the idea, on the merits, and believe they are close to getting the votes to support it. They're not sure they can succeed, but they think it's worth the effort.

In any event, political power in Washington tends is closely correlated with perception. If key members of Congress think it's important to satisfy progressives, then, by definition, it's important to satisfy progressives. That's another way of saying progressives have influence. And if progressives have influence, they may yet prevail on this issue. After all, they've been counted out before.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-treatment/the-public-option-lives-wow