Thursday, 22 October 2009

Reid has the votes for the opt-out public option

The health care formula which Reid is reportedly favoring for the Senate bill calls for the more conservative, Schumer version of the public option, probably run by a nonprofit board with federal seed money, with the added feature of an opt-out: after a couple of years states can bail out of the public option. Who has the power to make the opt-out happen – governors, legislators etc – is not clear. It gives conservative Democrats a fig leaf – hey, we’re leaving up to the state capitol, state’s rights!

Remember that Reid is a timid, timid, timid little Milquetoast of a man. Reid is even more timid after the recent fiasco on the doctor-salary measure, which made him look like he can’t lead his caucus or count to 60 (just imagine if Reid and Pelosi had traded jobs this year -- health reform would be law already). He’s not going to jump out with something like this opt-out thing unless he has checked his caucus, and checked them again, and again, to ensure he has everybody nailed down on the cloture issue.

So unless someone screws him over, he's got it.

The cloture question was tested almost immediately. Baucus went completely nuts when he heard Reid’s plans, because Reid is wiping out Baucus’ two-month effort to schmooze Olympia Snowe. Baucus tried to round up conservative Democrats to persuade them to oppose the public option. Keep in mind that only one Democrat is needed to step out and say “I will oppose cloture on the public option”, and the public option is dead. But not one did. Not even Baucus himself. Nelson and Conrad grumbled, but they didn’t threaten to join Team Red on a filibuster.

And it is very unlikely that a Senator is going to remain silent until the day of the vote and then suddenly screw over the President: they will haggle for their price. Silence is golden, no news is good news. Specter and ABC confirm that Reid has 60 on cloture, although a Senate aide tried to poopoo the story. Landrieu is still spouting nonsense about the public option but she has indicated that she will support cloture, as will Pryor. Nelson isn’t happy but didn’t threaten a block on cloture. Conrad already said the Schumer version of the plan could pass, which suggests it’s unlikely that he would block cloture. The only public rejection of the new Reid plan was from the Republican, Snowe, whom we probably don’t need now. Collins, Snowe, Bayh, Landrieu, Wyden and Lieberman are meeting privately to wring their hands worrying about the plan, but none have said “hell, no” to it. Perhaps they’re just humouring Snowe while she licks her wounds.

There are two people we do want to watch closely right now. Bayh says he opposes a federal public option and wouldn’t vote for cloture on a bill that hurts his state -- youch. And Lincoln has vaguely supported the public option in the past, I think, but now she is insisting that she won’t support a solely government-funded public option and that Arkansas doesn’t want it (incorrect), which hopefully is just weasel-wording which would allow her to vote, at least, for cloture.

Because the public option will be in the original merged bill, there will be a vote on an amendment to remove it. This will give Blue Dogs the chance to vote in favor of stripping out the public option (bad), for cloture (good), and against the final bill (bad), so they can say they voted against the public option two out of three times – but it’s the cloture vote that matters, because that gets the victory threshold down from 60 to 50.

Those who were clamouring for Obama to draw a line in the sand on the public option before, must remember that as soon as he committed himself, ANY on the Blue Dogs could crush him with a “no” vote on cloture. He would effectively be putting his balls in their hands: as soon as he committed, they could hold him hostage. Thus the reticence.

In the House Pelosi is fighting the Blue Dogs (who should like the public option because it’s cheap and covers more people) to get a robust public option through the House; this would give Pelosi leverage in conference, and give guys like Conrad something to grandstand against (although again, Conrad should also like the plan because his good buddies the CBO say it’s cheap). Democrats are also pushing the notion that the public option is similar to Medicare, which people understand and approve of (it wouldn’t be crazy to simply let people buy into Medicare, which is actually a budget-neutral option).

Out in the media, the Democrats are taking off the gloves. Obama is running a new ad slamming Steele for lying about health reform, and slapped down Grassley for claiming that Obama is spreading “propaganda” on health reform. Reid and Leahy are working on stripping the insurers of their anti-trust exemption, a plan which has wide, wide support among the public – 65 percent for, 21 against. But my favorite smackdown of the day occurred in the Senate, where a conservative lobbyist made the ghastly mistake of claiming that the current health reform plan will move us toward a European system and increase bankruptcies, and ran into a nasty buzz-saw named Al Franken, who asked: how many medical crises led to bankruptcies in Switzerland last year? Zero. How many in France ? Zero. How many in Germany ? Zero. So STFU.

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