Friday, February 26, 2010

Do Dems have the votes for the public option?


He isn't a Democrat, but Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont certainly thinks so.

I think we do have 50 votes in the Senate for a public option and frankly I don't know why the president has not put it in and I hope that we can inject it. I think it's a very important part of healthcare reform.

This is in direct opposition to the White House's claim that the votes just aren't there.

I'm torn, I must admit. While I would like to see a bill with a public option be signed into law -- it would, after all, make for much more meaningful reform -- I understand Obama's preference that the House pass the Senate bill as is (that is, without a public option) and then that modifications (but not the addition of a public option) be made through reconciliation.

And I repeat what I wrote the other day:

Or maybe they are, or at least could be with enough prodding, but maybe securing them, in both the House and Senate, would take too much time, and require too much prodding, too much additional compromise, too much playing off of competing Democratic interests, not least in a challenging mid-term election year.

And maybe the White House thinks that pushing through a more robust reform bill, one with a public option, by way of reconciliation would undermine the president's ability to sell reform as something other than a solo partisan effort. We all know what the public thinks of partisanship. We also know what it thinks of reform -- unpopular within the context of legislative sausage-making, much more popular when the specifics are known. And we know that the media are spinning reconciliation as a dirty word. So how would passing a reform bill, even one with a popular public option, through what is perceived to be partisan trickery benefit Obama, not least given how Republicans would undoubtedly propagandize against both the process and the substance? And how would it benefit Democrats running for re-election in November?

At this point, in other words, it may just be a matter of brutal political calculation. In a perfect world, maybe Obama would have pushed vigorously for the public option and would be demanding it now. But it's hardly perfect in Washington, and the key is get this done as soon as possible so that what would be major historic achievement could be communicated to the public well ahead of the midterms and so that Congress, and the Democrats specifically, could move on.

Don't get me wrong. This is not what I want. It's just what I think is realistically possible in the short term -- and what would benefit Democrats without excessive risk of the whole thing unravelling.

And part of the problem is that the situation in Congress is so unclear. Sanders says the votes are there, but Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa says they're probably not: "I hate to say it, but I am not certain we're going to be able to get a public option in this bill."

But if now is not the time, the time will come. Harkin:

That doesn't mean we stop trying... I keep reminding people that this bill is not written in stone, like the Ten Commandments, for ever and ever. This is a law, it's a bill, we change laws all the time around here -- that's what we do.

And so, whatever happens now:

At some point, we're going to revisit the public option, I can assure you of that.

Which is what many of us have been saying all along. Indeed, I have often referred to this admittedly flawed bill as a possible thin end of the wedge that could lead to significant supplementary reform down the road, if not in the very near future.

As Chris Bowers puts it: "To strengthen your negotiating position, and to prepare for future fights, it is important to round up as much support as possible."

Those fights are coming, whether Republicans like it or not, and I suspect there will continue to be significant and perhaps increasing popular support for the public option going forward.

And so while the push for the public option must continue, and while the temperature of the Senate must be taken, the current political reality both in Washington and across the country must not be ignored. Given that reality, what needs to be done is for Democrats to get this done now.

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