Liberals count Dem votes for public option

House liberals, challenged by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to prove they can pass their preferred public option, are surveying the rest of the Democratic caucus Wednesday.

In doing so, they may settle the key question facing House Democrats — whether there are enough votes within the Democratic caucus to pass any sort of plan.

The "whip count," started last night, seeks to prove that there are a majority 218 votes in the House for what liberals call a "robust public option." Robust generally means that providers' compensation would be tied to Medicare rates.

"We're asking everybody," said Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

The public option would be a government-run insurance plan that competes with private insurance companies to hold down rates. Centrist Blue Dog and other rural lawmakers don't like tying reimbursement rates to Medicare, saying providers in their districts are underpaid by the current Medicare system.

Those who support a public option, but not Medicare rates, support "negotiated rates." Under that, the officials running the public option would negotiate rates individually with providers.

The votes to pass a public option would have to come entirely within the Democratic caucus. Republicans oppose the Democrats' healthcare proposals, and the public option is one of the elements they despise most.

The whipping effort is being undertaken by the Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus.

The effort grew out of a meeting Thursday night with Pelosi (D-Calif.), at which liberals made their pitch for a public option that compensates at Medicare rates plus an extra five percent, or "Medicare plus five."

"She said 'We need 218 votes,' " Woolsey said. " 'Show me what your people can do.' "

They undertook a whip count of the four caucuses, which showed solid support. Then Pelosi's office asked them to expand it to the full caucus, Woolsey said.

The Senate Finance Committee Tuesday rejected two public option proposals, one tied to Medicare, the other negotiated rates. While more centrist lawmakers don't want to vote on a liberal proposal that has no chance in the Senate, Woolsey said the Senate vote showed the need to redouble their efforts to pull the final bill their way in negotiations.

"It proves even more that we have to be strong when it comes out of the House," Woolsey said.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), a Blue Dog who says his home state healthcare providers are undercompensated by Medicare, said he was surveyed by a Progressive Caucus member and told them he was a "no."

"I think there is considerable support for a 'robust' public option," Pomeroy said. "But there's not majority support in the House for a robust public option."