Nadler to Obama: Give ‘Em Hell Already

Last weekend, the Obama administration seemed ready to give up on the public option, sending all sorts of signals that the president would sign a health care reform bill with a co-op provision, if that’s what it would take to get a package through the Senate.

But now a key Congressional backer of the public option believes his side may have regained some momentum.

“I’m probably a little more optimistic than a couple of days ago, because of the strength of the pushback,” Representative Jerry Nadler told me in an interview yesterday.

It was Nadler who last month drafted a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning that progressive Democrats in the House would vote against any bill that didn’t include a “robust” public option. The letter attracted about 60 signatures.

At the time, Nadler and his colleagues were upset at a Pelosi-backed compromise with conservative Democrats that watered down the public option in the House version of health care legislation. But last weekend’s developments suggested that the White House was ready to go one step further and junk the public option altogether.

That sparked a vocal backlash from Nadler and his allies.

“If they try to get a bill through the Senate with 60 votes without a public option, it won’t pass the House,” he said. “We will make sure it doesn’t pass the House.”

Other House progressives have been making similar threats, and Nadler admits he’s not sure how seriously the House leadership and the White House have been taking them—until now.

He described a conference call this week for all House Democrats in which “people who you’d be surprised at” spoke up and told Pelosi they’d reject any bill without a public option. It was only a few weeks ago, after she struck her deal with the Blue Dogs, that Pelosi seemed to sneer at the threats of progressives.

But now, Nadler said, “I think she’s probably going to take that more seriously.”

“We’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” he added. “And this is where we’re drawing it. And we have to draw it here. We probably should have drawn it a little closer in.”

So what happens, I asked Nadler, if the House is ultimately presented with a bill with a cop-op provision instead of a public option—and if the White House and House leadership then tell progressives that it was the best they could do and that if it fails, the Obama presidency might be sunk?

“They can’t allow it to come to that situation, because I’ll vote no,” he replied. “They cannot allow it to get there, and that’s what we’re telling them now. If it comes to that, enough members, I think, will vote no. And they certainly don’t want to test that.”

A report in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal indicated that Senate Democrats might be reviving the idea of using reconciliation—a filibuster-proof process typically reserved for votes on deficit reduction—to pass the more controversial aspects of health care reform, including (potentially) a public option.

This, Nadler said, may be a sign that the White House and Senate leaders are waking up to the strength of pubic option sentiment in the House. Previously, some top Senate Democrats had suggested they’d be O.K. with replacing the public option with co-ops, a move that would (probably) shore up support from a handful of moderate and conservative Senate Democrats.

By indicating last weekend that they’d also be fine with this, the Obama administration may have been hoping to win over some Republican votes. But, as Nadler noted, the G.O.P. is no friendlier to “Obamacare” this week than they were last.

The administration is “finally realizing—although they should have realized it long ago—that they’re not going to make a deal with Republicans,” he said. “They’re not going to get any Republican votes. Maybe Olympia Snowe. But you’re not going to make a deal with Grassley. None of these people are going to come through—and they told you so, in so many words, in the last few days.”

And that makes public option supporters like Nadler all the more adamant that they shouldn’t have to compromise any further—not when there are 60 Democrats in the Senate who could stand together to beat any Republic filibuster of a public option.

“The only way a bill is going to pass,” Nadler said, “is if the leadership of the Senate and the White House say to the Senate Democrats, ‘Listen, if some of you don’t want to vote for the public option—fine. If some of you don’t want to vote for the bill—fine. But you’ve got to vote to bring it to a vote. You’ve got to vote for cloture and stop a filibuster.’

“That’s what we have to insist on. That’s what the White House is going to have to insist on.”