Pelosi leans on Obama

President Barack Obama’s relationship with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, strained by differences over healthcare, will be tested by their talks on Tuesday in advance of his Wednesday night speech to a joint session of Congress.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said repeatedly that a strong government-run public option is essential to healthcare reform. Obama, by contrast, says it is just a “sliver” of reform. Pundits have been parsing how important a sliver is since last month, speculating about whether the president is backing away from the public option to get a reform bill passed.

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His enthusiasm for a public option has waned as conservative and centrist Democrats have come out against a large government role.

Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will confer with Obama on Tuesday at the White House. While Obama administration officials have made various and sometimes contradictory remarks about the public option, Pelosi has been consistent.

“A bill without a strong public option will not pass the House,” Pelosi said in statement last Thursday. “Eliminating the public option would be a major victory for the insurance companies who have rationed care, increased premiums and denied coverage.”

The Speaker’s press release pointedly put pressure on the president by quoting him saying “a public option will keep insurance companies honest.” The release also used the word “change” — a theme of Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign — to drive home Pelosi’s point: “Any real change requires the inclusion of a strong public option.”

But it remains unclear if Pelosi will be spending her time in the meeting with Obama listening to the president or lobbying him to accept her view. Pelosi aides declined to answer questions on the Speaker’s plan for the Tuesday meeting.

Unlike Pelosi, Reid has steered clear of issuing definitive statements on the public plan, knowing that attracting 60 votes in the Senate will require extensive negotiation. And while all three House panel health bills that still need to be patched together and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill contain public options, the Senate Finance Committee’s working draft does not.

During a Labor Day speech in Cincinnati on Monday, Obama refused to say whether a public option is a must.

He acknowledged that he was again avoiding specifics: “Now, I’ll have a lot more to say about this on Wednesday night,” the president told the AFL-CIO’s Labor Day Picnic. “I might have to save my voice a little bit, not get too excited. I don’t want to give anything away. I want y’all to tune in.”

Pelosi won’t need to tune in; she will be sitting directly over Obama’s left shoulder in the seat reserved for the Speaker of the House during such ceremonial speeches. And just as many eyes will be on her as will be on Obama when the issue of a public option is broached.

The Speaker has moved much of Obama’s agenda through Congress, though she was more forceful than the White House in urging her colleagues to vote for climate change legislation. While the president and his aides lobbied specific members to get them to support the bill, Pelosi was the driving force.

But that 219-212 vote upset some House Democrats who were not pleased they had to take a tough vote on a bill that probably won’t emerge from the Senate during the 111th Congress. Critics contend that the climate vote has hampered efforts to pass healthcare reform.

Pelosi appears committed to a public option, regardless of what Obama says on Wednesday. And if Obama doesn’t echo Pelosi, it would be the first major policy dispute between the leaders of the Democratic Party.

Yet it would also signal that Democrats intend to keep their promise not to be a rubber stamp for the White House. Many political analysts have said part of the reason that Republicans lost control of Congress was because House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and other GOP lawmakers rarely bucked President George W. Bush.

Pelosi aides maintain that — despite her unambiguous statement that a public option will be included in the House bill — there is no daylight between the Speaker and Obama.
“The Speaker, just like the president, believes that the public option will keep the insurance companies honest and will ensure choice and competition,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said on Monday, maintaining that Pelosi has not backed away from her statement last week.

Many of Pelosi’s most ardent supporters, though, remained concerned that significant daylight exists. And they continued to voice their fears that in finally clarifying his must-haves, Obama will effectively abandon a commitment to a public option.

“By bringing it up and dealing with the public option, I think it gives it momentum and it tells our leadership in Congress that this is something the president believes in very strongly,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said on MSNBC on Monday morning. “So if that discussion is not part of [Monday’s] speech and more importantly Wednesday’s speech, yeah, that would be a disappointment.”

Last week Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said he would still need to be shown a compelling reason why a public option wasn’t necessary if he were to support a bill lacking one.

“When I spoke to the president last week, he said to me, ‘Xavier, I want to make sure that I reduce the costs for those who have healthcare insurance, and that I increase the number of people’ — he said 35 to 40 million people — ‘who finally get health insurance,’ ” Becerra said. “And I thought to myself, OK, if those are your two main goals, then that means you have to have a strong public option in this plan; otherwise, if you don’t have the public option, you have in essence what I said before, a broken private health insurance industry on steroids.”

Asked what the president’s response was, Becerra said: “He said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ And I said I’m with you on that. I’m with you on that.”