Reid, Baucus ready to split on public option for healthcare as vote nears

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), once in polite disagreement over the idea of a public option component in healthcare legislation, are approaching a breaking point over the issue.

Reid and Baucus have staked out opposing positions on the central question of a government role in health reform — Reid has consistently stood in favor, but Baucus has consistently said the idea doesn’t have enough Senate support.

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Instead, Baucus has inserted insurance co-operatives into the bill that is scheduled for a final vote on Tuesday.

After that, decision time will loom for Reid, who has said he plans to merge the Finance Committee version with the one passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in July. The majority leader has said he plans to consult Baucus — with whom he enjoys a generally good relationship — along with HELP Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the White House.

But the Nevada senator’s input will be critical. Having deferred the issue to Baucus this summer, Reid signaled on Thursday that he is prepared to join Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who both pushed a public option amendment that failed in a committee vote last Tuesday.

“We are going to have a public option before this bill goes to the president's desk," Reid said in a conference call with constituents on Thursday, as reported by the Las Vegas Sun. “I believe the public option is so vitally important to create a level playing field and prevent the insurance companies from taking advantage of us.”

On the same day, Harkin gave The Des Moines Register the same message, suggesting clearly that he will side with Reid against Baucus.

“We will have a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas, a health reform bill. It will have a lot of good stuff in it. It will have a lot of prevention and wellness programs in there that I’ve been fighting for,” Harkin said in a conference call. “And it will have a public option. The question of if it doesn’t isn’t even an option.”


In another sign that Reid’s decision will hold sway, Harkin told The New York Times last weekend that Reid will be the Democrats’ “quarterback” as the bill moves toward the floor.

“There will be wrangling,” Harkin said. “But Mr. Reid will make the final calls. Our quarterback is Harry Reid… We elected him to that position. He will decide how this is done.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democratic leader in the upper chamber, has been leading the charge for a public option. Schumer and Reid have a close working relationship.

A Democratic Senate source downplayed any differences, saying that Reid, Baucus and Harkin cooperate well but that the Finance Committee bill is the only legislation that can pass the Senate.

"President Obama clearly articulated his blueprint in his speech, and everyone knows Finance has the bulk of the bill that reflects that blueprint," the source said. "Everyone, including the White House, knows the Finance bill is the only bill that’s paid for and can pass. In short, the White House wants a win, and using the bulk of the Baucus bill is the playbook to get the 'W.' "

Watching from the Republican ranks, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) did his best on Friday to keep a spotlight on the difference among the Democratic leaders. Asked by reporters if the GOP’s failure so far to block the bill in the Finance Committee could be a harbringer of the coming floor action, McConnell acknowledged, “it may.”

“The Democrats were given a big majority.  They have the White House.  They have a big majority in the House.  They have 60 votes in the Senate. They ought to be able to do anything they want to,” McConnell said.

“The question is:  Will they?  Are their own members comfortable enough with a proposal that takes $500 billion out of Medicare over the next 10 years and raises billions of dollars in taxes on both individuals and corporations?  Are they comfortable with that?  If they are, they should have the votes to pass it.”

A senior GOP aide said Republicans suspect Reid’s decision will prevail on whether to include a public option.

“Those are the three guys involved, but Reid has really put himself in the middle of this whole thing,” the aide said. “He’s said all along he wanted to be the guy to take control of this.”

Reid spokesman Jim Manley said any differences between Reid, Baucus and Harkin are “overblown.”

“Sen. Reid will work with President Obama and members of the Finance and HELP Committee to put together a bill that garners the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster. But the final action is going to be on the Senate floor, where the Senate will work its will.”