Is W.H. Pushing a Lieberman Deal?

by Jonathan Cohn | December 14, 2009

Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown is reporting that the White House is encouraging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to cut a deal with Joe Lieberman.

The White House is denying the report, in fairly strong terms: "The White House is not pushing Senator Reid in any direction," spokesman Dan Pfeiffer says. "We are working hand in hand with the Senate Leadership to work through the various issues and pass health reform as soon as possible."

But one of TNR's Capitol Hill sources is saying the same thing that Politico's is. According to the source, the message came directly from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: Lose the Medicare buy-in, reach an accommodation with Lieberman, and pass legislation as soon as possible.

According to Politico, Reid, frustrated with Lieberman's antics, is inclined to wait at least until the Congressional Budget Office delivers its formal cost estimate, most likely in the next two days.

What's really going on here? Who knows.

 

But many disillusioned liberals have come to the conclusion the president doesn't care as much about the public option as they do. And that seems to be the case, regardless of this report's veracity.

 

While Obama has consistently supported the idea in principle, at times touting it when he could easily have buried it, he's also made clear that he doesn't see it as the centerpiece of reform. It has not, by any reckoning, been a major focus of his administration's lobbying of Capitol Hill.

Still, it's not clear that more presidential pressure would have brought us to a different place politically. As several of my friends and colleagues have pointed out today, Lieberman's opposition to the public option seems to reflect a determination to oppose--and, if at all possible, destroy--whatever elements of reform liberals hold most dear. Meanwhile, three other potential supporters--Susan Collins, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe--have their own problems with the Medicare buy-in and, more generally, the public option. This is despite polls showing the voters in states for three of the members support the public option and do so strongl.

The threat of a filibuster means it takes 60 votes to pass legislation. Without two of Collins, Lieberman, Nelson, and Snowe, Reid simply can't get to 60.

Why not try to pass reform, or just the public option, through the reconciliation process, in which a minority of senators don't have the power to block a vote? Why not reach out to Collins, Nelson, and Snowe, somehow accommodate two of them, and then tell Lieberman where he can stick his filibuster? Those are perfectly reasonable questions.

But don't underestimate the impact time may be having on strategic calculus at the White House. Negotiating a new deal would mean adding days, at least, to the process. Every extra day the health care debate continues is an day spent wrangling with the Liebermans of the world, rather than talking about, say, jobs. That's probably not good for health care reform or the administration's broader agenda.

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