As Barack Obama makes final preparations for his address to Congress, the public option tug of war between liberal Democrats in the House and conservative Democrats in the Senate seems to be ending—with the House side giving in.
The signs are suddenly everywhere that a “trigger” compromise—in which a public option would only be activated years down the line if private health insurers fail to meet a series of benchmarks—will ultimately pass muster with just enough House Democrats.
Until now, a bloc of at least 60 liberals in the House has threatened to vote against any health care legislation that lacks a “robust” public option. That would be more than enough to kill a bill, since—assuming no Republicans vote for any final reform package—Democrats can afford no more than 38 defections in the House.
This seemed to create an impossible situation, since a band of conservative Democrats in the Senate is intent on making sure there’s no public option in any final bill. Their preferred alternative has, until now, been non-profit purchasing cooperatives—tiny, toothless entities that public option enthusiasts ridicule as worthless.
But the idea of a trigger, advocated most notably by Olympia Snowe (i.e. the one Republican senator who might actually vote for a reform bill), is suddenly gaining steam, with both groups.
Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat and a former insurance executive, endorsed the trigger concept over the weekend, arguing that the public option should only be a “failsafe” if private insurers don’t reform themselves.
Nelson’s move strongly suggests that the rest of his Democratic colleagues in the Senate will end up in the same place. Weeks ago, the party’s Senate leadership began downplaying the significance of a public option, and a trigger would represent the logical halfway point between the legislation produced by the chamber’s two committees with health care jurisdiction: The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has endorsed a strong public option, but the more conservative Finance Committee is on the verge of recommending cooperatives.
But such a compromise in the Senate would only matter if liberals in the House are willing to go along with it.
That is why a Tuesday story in Roll Call is so significant: several liberal House Democrats who earlier this summer signed a letter to Pelosi threatening to vote against anything short of a “robust” public option, are expressing far more openness to the trigger than they did to co-ops.
“This is a way to get a bill,” New Jersey’s Bill Pascrell told the paper. “I believe it’s worth listening to because I want legislation that is going to, in some shape or form, expand coverage and bring down the cost of health care.”
Also on Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he could support a bill without a public option, and Pelosi, exiting the White House after a meeting with Obama and Harry Reid, would only that House is on track to pass a public option “right now.”
“This, as I say, is the legislative process, and right now we will have a public option in our bill,” she said.
In response, Raul Grijalva, the co-chairman of the Congressional progressive Caucus and a stalwart public option backer, pushed back on Tuesday afternoon against the perception that his troops were going wobbly. Calling the trigger “surrender,” he said that “the vast majority of the C.P.C. is not prepared to wave a white flag on the public option.”
But Grijalva’s C.P.C. has never enjoyed a reputation on Capitol Hill as a feared negotiator. The group boasts more members than any other legislative caucus, but it’s seen as soft and easy to break—not nearly as unified and disciplined as, say, the smaller Blue Dog Coalition. Even C.P.C. members admit as much.
Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat (who is expected to run for Ted Kennedy’s vacant Senate seat), was quoted in Roll Call saying, “We’re the caucus that least marches to a unified drummer—that’s not what we do.”
The C.P.C.’s threat to sink Obama’s health care threat has been so unusual because, for the first time, it was actually being taken seriously. Grijalva (and his co-chair, California’s Lynn Woolsey) spent the summer insisting that their membership had compromised enough on the public option and was prepared to draw a line. They were backed up by their rank-and-file members, who either publicly affirmed their statements or said nothing.
But with Tuesday’s Roll Call story, the C.P.C. is back to its old chaotic, unwieldy self, with individual members undermining their leadership and pronouncing themselves open to compromise.
It is this dissent, and not Grijalva’s nothing-to-see-here insistence, that will catch the attention of Senate leaders and White House officials. They know they won’t need every C.P.C. member on board to pass a trigger in the House; they’ll just need about 60 percent of them, and now—for the first time all summer—it looks like they’ll have room to maneuver.
In theory, of course, the trigger would be a nice compromise between a full-scale public option and toothless co-ops. In reality, House liberals would be giving up far more than the Senate conservatives, since it lets Senate Democrats off the hook on the question of reconciliation (an ugly but not wholly impractical route to avoiding a G.O.P. filibuster and passing a real public option) and because there’s real doubt that, if adapted, a public option trigger would ever actually be pulled—even if private insurers don’t clean themselves up.
What the C.P.C. black sheep seem to be saying, in other words, is that they are now willing to be more pragmatic than progressive.
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