Speaker’s move left on public option draws centrist complaints

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to tack left in the healthcare debate has prompted complaints from centrists and started a high-stakes vote-counting operation.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) whip team fanned out on the floor Wednesday afternoon to see if there were the needed 218 Democratic votes for the Medicare-based public option Pelosi (D-Calif.) has chosen for the final bill.

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Leaders are planning to roll the bill out next week, and are hoping to vote the first week in November.

Pelosi has acknowledged she doesn’t have all the votes, but told members she thinks she’s close. But centrist Blue Dogs are hinting that they may have the votes to stop her.

“I can’t tell you we’ve whipped this, but there’s been less than 12 Blue Dogs willing to support this,” said Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), the Blue Dogs’ co-chairman for communications.

The number 12 is significant, because it indicates that 40 of the 52 Blue Dogs might be ready to vote for it. If 39 or more Democrats were to join all Republicans in voting against a bill, it would fail on the House floor.

Many Blue Dogs are from rural areas where hospitals complain they’re shortchanged by Medicare. Others oppose a government-run insurance plan competing with private companies, fearing the government will have an unfair advantage and drive those companies out of business.

Many other vulnerable members from conservative districts fear their constituents will punish them at the polls next year if they support an expansion of government pushed by liberals.

Another complication is that Clyburn’s count only will determine support for the Medicare-based public option. Some Democrats are ready to vote against the bill for other reasons.

For example, Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) said Chief Deputy Whip Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) approached him on the floor to ask how he’d vote on the public option. He told her he’d support the public option, but still might vote against the bill.

“I think they’re miscalculating to think that the public option is the only issue,” Altmire said.

Altmire, a member of both the Blue Dogs and the New Democrats, opposes the income surtax on the wealthy that would help pay for the bill. But he notes that other members who support the public option might vote against it based on other issues.

For example, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and other anti-abortion members fear taxpayer dollars might wind up being used for abortion.

 But supporters of the liberal approach said they believe they can get the votes. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), a vocal supporter of the public option, said he thinks that the Medicare-based option will end up not only in the House bill, but in the final bill. Pelosi has viewed the Medicare-based option as a bargaining chip with the Senate, saying that if the House passes the more liberal option, the final bill is more likely to include a public option with the negotiated rates favored by centrists. But Weiner said the political winds are at the back of the more liberal option.

“That’s the way it’s trending in the Senate because that’s the way polls are going,” Weiner said. He said that Obama’s ratings on healthcare are falling because he’s seen as backing away from the public option.

But polls have also demonstrated confusion in the public about what the public option is. Weiner said support is also growing among more centrist members to label the public option as an extension of Medicare, because it’s a well-known government healthcare plan.

“Simplicity sells,” Weiner said. “It is an idea that a lot of my colleagues who’d been reluctant to embrace a public option are embracing.”

Pelosi’s decision, announced at a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday night, was a victory for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, whose members rebelled against a July deal between a group of Blue Dogs and House leaders that compromised on a public option with negotiated rates.

The Progressive Caucus started a whip count last month, which found about 200 of the 256 Democratic House members support “Medicare Plus 5.” Progressive leaders said the support of Democratic leaders could put the plan over the top.

But Blue Dogs also did their own whip count last month after Pelosi said there were 20 Blue Dogs who supported some version of the public option. Blue Dog leader Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) said the survey found 12 supporters of the public option, but many of the rest said stopping a public option was not their top priority.

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