Harkin: Health bill will have public option

The healthcare reform bill that hits the Senate floor will include a government-run public option insurance program, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) insisted Thursday.

Though the toughest decisions about combining the HELP Committee’s bill with a measure from the Finance Committee that lacks a public option lay in front of Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Harkin made clear that public option supporters have earned the right to insist their views prevail.

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Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) won a huge boost to his centrist approach to healthcare reform Wednesday when the Congressional Budget Office announced that his bill would actually reduce the budget deficit while extending coverage to 29 million people – and without a public option.

But Harkin showed that does not indicate he and his committee are willing to accept a diminished role in shaping the legislation that the Senate will consider later this month.

Noting that three House committees have also approved bills including a public option, Harkin maintained that supporters of the proposal should hold sway.

“Look, five committees have reported a bill out on healthcare. Four of them have a public option. One doesn’t. So you would think the weight would be on the side of having a public option in the bill – and that’s where it is,” Harkin said during an interview on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program, which is scheduled to air Sunday.

In the Senate alone, Harkin said the public option has at least 52 solid backers. “So why would we then sort of contemplate not having a public option? I think the burden is on those who are opposed to a public option to say why they should [not] have it when the majority of people and the majority of Democrats are in favor of that,” he said.

Even if Senate Democrats who support the public option are unable to secure commitments from fellow Democrats to back the proposal itself, Harkin predicted Democrats would unite when the moment of truth arrives to vote on passing the overall bill. “I mean, there’s a lot of things that Democrats really support in this bill,” he said.

Reid has just begun the process of hashing out how to reconcile the differences between the HELP Committee’s bill and the legislation on which the Finance Committee will vote next Tuesday. Reid supports the public option and has often predicted the Senate will pass a bill that includes the program.

Harkin also said this question would be settled very soon and that the White House would side with public option supporters. “I think in the next few days you’ll see that happen,” he said.

But the question of whether the bill that hits the Senate floor already includes the public option or whether supporters would have to add it through an amendment is critical, especially since Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) strenuously maintains that the public option cannot get the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.

Thirty senators signed a letter Thursday, circulated by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), urging the inclusion of a public option in any health reform legislation that will be considered on the Senate floor. 

The senators’ letter expresses concern that “absent a competitive and continuous public insurance option – health reform legislation will not produce nationwide access and ongoing cost containment.”

But centrist Democratic skepticism has been overplayed, Harkin suggested, and a bill with a public option could win the support of all 58 Democrats and both independents in the Senate. He acknowledged, however, that the public option in the HELP Committee bill would have to be modified.

“I believe there are 60 votes. I mean, you don’t know until you vote, do you? I mean, there is a lot of people who are sort of on the edge on this. It kind of depends on how it’s shaped and formed,” Harkin said.

“I’ve spoken with all of them about this and what I’ve detected is that there’s no real, hard line in the sand,” said Harkin, who would not name any of the Democrats he has lobbied but he described as “interesting” Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (Maine) proposal to establish as “trigger” that would activate the public option in states where insurers fail to meet coverage and affordability benchmarks.

And if the misgivings of centrist Democrats – such as Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) -- are not satisfied during the floor debate, Harkin said, they will face a choice between voting for legislation that includes a public option or killing the whole bill.

“It’s one thing to vote on a bill specifically dealing with something and then another thing to vote on a comprehensive bill that might include it,” Harkin said. “The bill should go forward and then when we get on the floor and there are amendments offered to change the public option or to modify it or to do away with it, well then they’re going to have to vote as they see fit.”

Watch streaming video of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) on C-SPAN here.