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Public Option Wrangling

December 7, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The big health care story this week will be the ongoing dealings among Senate Democrats to do something with the public option provision that will win enough votes for the bill to pass. As it stands, four conservative Democrats are threatening to filibuster the bill over the public option, but the Democrats can’t afford to lose a single Democratic vote if they are going to be able to break a Republican filibuster.

The current thinking among the leadership is that they can water down the public option far enough that the four conservative Dems and perhaps even a couple of Republicans will support the bill, but not so far that too many progressives join a filibuster from the other side. But it’s looking more and more like any compromise that can hold that balance actually involves getting rid of the public option altogether. The fact of the matter is that the opt-out plan currently included in the bill is about the most watered down version of the plan that can truthfully be called a public option. Weaken it any more operationally and it will no longer be “public”; weaken it more on the implementation front and it won’t be an “option” because it will hardly be available to anyone.

As Jacob Hacker explains at the Treatment blog, all of the public option alternatives currently on the table are compromises of compromises of compromises (ad infinitum) to the extent that they are essentially new proposals. “In short, the new compromise proposals are anything but,” Hacker writes. “They represent calls for advocates of the public plan to eat their crumbs and be happy.” Theoretically at least, progressives could change the dynamic by threatening to filibuster a bill that does not contain a real public option. The onus would then be on the leadership to decide which side of the party to accommodate, or whether they should look again at using the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation tactic to pass a robust public option. So far, two progressives — Sen. Roland Burris [D, IL] and Sen. Bernard Sanders [I-D, VT] — have said they will filibuster any health care bill without a public option. One or two more Democrats joining them this week could be a game changer. And even if they can’t ultimately win on the public option without using reconciliation, they could at least put themselves in a better position for demanding improvements elsewhere in the bill.

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