For the Senate, a Compromise; For Dean Democrats, a Betrayal

The signs are unmistakable: The Senate’s Democratic leaders are laying the groundwork to compromise away the “public option” that, to

The signs are unmistakable: The Senate’s Democratic leaders are laying the groundwork to compromise away the “public option” that, to much of their party’s base, is the litmus test of whether any health care reform plan is worth enacting.

“We might have to give up the public option or go to a co-op,” Dick Durbin, the Democrats’ chief vote-counter in the Senate, told the New York Times last Friday. “I favor a public option. But I won’t say that I’d vote against a bill if it does not include the public option.”

And Chuck Schumer, who last month declared that Al Franken’s arrival as the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate would make any further compromise on the public option, is suddenly expressing support for private “co-ops”—the public option alternative being pushed by some cautious Senate Democrats—provided that it’s not “a measly little thing that’s just a fig leaf.”

These sudden pronouncements strongly suggest two things: (1) that, despite their threats, Senate Democrats are not seriously considering using the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to pass health care legislation; and (2) that the biggest obstacle to passing health care reform this year may now be posed by Democrats.

On the first point, Mr. Durbin’s and Mr. Schumer’s comments are clearly based on the assumption that 60 votes will be needed to pass any plan. If reconciliation, which would bar filibusters, were employed, the magic number would only be 51—and there’s little doubt Democrats would be able to hit it.

But 60 is far trickier, especially with Max Baucus and his “Gang of Six” Finance Committee members intent on replacing the public option with the co-op concept. By publicly moving toward co-ops, Mr. Durbin and Mr. Schumer are indicating that 60 votes is what they’re aiming for—even if it means giving up a concept the party base views as sacred.

This is where things could get very ugly for Democrats, because if a public option-less bill clears the Senate, it would then have to be reconciled with a House plan that will almost certainly include one. And literally dozens of House Democrats share the grassroots’ conviction: if there’s no public option, there’s no point. Would they actually vote for a final bill that gives it up?

Howard Dean, who has led the liberal grassroots campaign for a public option and who has significant influence with the party’s base, is probably a good barometer. I interviewed him last week, just after House Democratic leaders had watered down their version of the public option to accommodate the conservative Blue Dogs.

Surprisingly, Mr. Dean said he was fine with the compromise—but drew the line at the co-ops that Mr. Baucus and his friends are promoting.

“Without the public plan,” he told me, “this bill is less than worthless. It’s very painful and bad for America.”

On Monday, I emailed his spokeswoman and asked if, in light of Mr. Durbin’s and Mr. Schumer’s comments, Mr. Dean had adjusted his position. Not at all, I was told.

This sets up a huge problem for Democrats. Just a few days ago, Mr. Dean was positioned to play a key role in convincing House progressives—five dozen of whom had just threatened to vote against any House bill that included the watered down public option negotiated with the Blue Dogs—to go along with the compromise that their leaders had worked out.

But this was contingent on Senate Democrats also passing a similar public option plan. Now, though, they seem poised to do away with the public option in the interest of winning over Mr. Baucus and his crew.

Mr. Dean has another solution in mind: just use reconciliation. “The Republicans don’t have any credibility on this at all,” he said. “There wasn’t any cost to getting Medicare through with no Republican support. There wasn’t any cost to getting Social Security through with no Republican support.”

Those 60 or so House progressives who are already threatening to vote no would surely agree with this. Why, they will demand, should we be forced to compromise any further when the Senate can pass this with 51 votes? And they will be egged on by a grassoots base that could move to open revolt if the party’s Washington leaders give up on the public option altogether.

Mr. Durbin and Mr. Schumer may have found the easiest way to move a bill through the Senate. But doing so could spark a backlash in the House that would kill health care.

For the Senate, a Compromise; For Dean Democrats, a Betrayal