By Alexander Bolton - 09/29/09 10:00 AM EDT
Whether it ultimately passes may depend on a handful of first-term Democrats who owe their seats, in significant measure, to the support they received from Schumer (D-N.Y.) when he headed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 2006 and 2008.
Schumer has become the Senate’s most outspoken advocate for a government-run health insurance plan, investing significant political capital in the proposal.
While that may have seemed a losing bet a month ago, the political odds have shifted in recent weeks.
Though an effort to include the public option in the Finance Committee’s health reform package is expected to fall short, proponents say it will garner enough support among panel Democrats to affect the bill that reaches the Senate floor.
“Just bringing it up in the Finance Committee at all has revitalized the push for the public plan, and its chances only get better from here going forward,” said Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon.
Liberal activists watched in dismay as President Barack Obama distanced himself from the public option and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said an alternative proposal to set up healthcare co-ops could “fit the bill.”
They are suddenly more optimistic.
“I think we’ve seen the public option fare better instead of less well over time,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, which supports government-run health insurance.
“If we win, he’ll be credited with making the bill stronger,” Borosage said of Schumer.
Schumer boldly predicted in early July that a government-run health insurance plan would be included in the final bill that passes Congress.
“There will be a public option in the final bill,” Schumer declared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Some political observers think Schumer will wind up with egg on his face if his prediction falls flat.
“The outcome for him is critical,” said Lawrence Mead III, a professor specializing in American politics at New York University.
Mead said that Schumer’s Senate seat isn’t at stake because his standing in New York is strong, but that failure could affect his reputation as an effective legislative leader.
Schumer has made impassioned speeches on behalf of the public option in recent meetings with Democratic colleagues. He spoke out for the proposal at a Democratic Conference-wide meeting last week, as well as at a session with other Democrats on the Finance Committee.
“He believes very strongly that the public option is the best way to bring competition and cost-control to our healthcare system,” said a Senate aide. “He’s spoken at every caucus [meeting] for the need for that. He’s personally lobbied other members and groups.”
Another important voice has been that of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who broke publicly with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) over healthcare reform when Baucus unveiled his bill two weeks ago.
Schumer has teamed up with Rockefeller to lean on other members of the committee to part ways with Baucus on the issue of government-run health insurance. They held a conference call with reporters last week to tout the plan, which is scheduled for a committee vote as soon as Tuesday.
Senate aides and liberal activists say the panel will reject amendments offered by Schumer and Rockefeller to include the public option but that enough Democrats will support it to influence future deliberations.
“We have a good chance of getting [Sen. Tom] Carper [D-Del.], but [Sen.] Blanche Lincoln [D-Ark.] is still a question mark,” said a person familiar with committee-level negotiations. “We’re going to lose [Sen.] Kent Conrad [D-N.D.] and Baucus, but we’ll strengthen our hand going forward.”
Proponents of the public option say that as many as 10 of the 13 Democrats on Finance may vote for Schumer’s modified proposal that would set up a government plan with certain important restrictions.
The proposal reflects one that the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee included in the bill it passed in July. Schumer’s version would allow insurance providers to negotiate rates with the government; it would not force doctors to accept public-plan patients if they already treat Medicare patients; and it would require the government plan to be self-sustaining — it could not rely on a steady stream of congressional appropriations.
If a strong majority of Finance Committee Democrats support it, liberals would have a powerful argument that Reid should include the public option in the bill he brings to the Senate floor in the next few weeks.
“If the public plan is not in the bill that goes to the floor, getting 60 votes for an amendment to add it is going to be very hard,” said a proponent of the public option.
Reid offered new support for the prospect of including a version of the public option in the Senate bill.
Last week Reid called a proposal to set up a public option with a trigger a “doggone good idea.” (A trigger would implement a government insurance program if private insurance companies failed to achieve certain standards of affordability and quality.)
A well-worn joke in Washington is that it is dangerous to stand between Schumer and a television camera. Less known than his hunger for the media spotlight is his punishing work ethic and desire to be part of the pivotal legislative negotiation.
“Chuck very much, more than most, likes to be in the room at big moments,” said Eric Hauser, who worked for Schumer from 1989 to 1991 when Schumer played a part in passing the Brady Handgun Act and securing a Democratic victory on the 1991 federal budget.
“ ‘What’s next?’ is always Chuck’s thing,” said Hauser. “Why go for something small when something big is there? It’s an ego based on achievement and hard work. He absolutely wants the limelight, but he could get the limelight without doing the nitty-gritty legislative work.”