Liberals seeing cracks in centrist skepticism of public option

Liberals see cracks in the barrier of opposition to the public option that could allow both camps to break through and come together.
 
Centrist Democratic senators such as Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Mary Landrieu (La.), along with independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), have steadfastly maintained they cannot support the creation of a government-run, government-financed health insurance program.
 

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Although these senators and a few others have withheld their support for the public option compromise embraced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), liberals see an opportunity lurking.
 
Though public option supporters have not secured commitments from the 60 senators they need to even begin debating the healthcare reform bill on the Senate floor, they are just a few votes shy and believe their reticent colleagues can be brought around with reassurances that the proposal on the table already meets their demands.
 
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the moderate members about what a level-playing field public option is and I think as they learn about it, they become more and more relieved,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), a prominent supporter of the public option.
 
Democratic senators across the political spectrum are also under considerable pressure to not be responsible for scuttling President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative or dealing their party a damaging policy blow.
 
“There’s a tremendous desire among Democrats to find a way to come together on this,” said Richard Kirsch, the national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now, a union-backed liberal activism organization that has aggressively pushed for the public option. “They are looking to find ways to a formulation they think they can support,” Kirsch said of the centrists.
 
The exact details of the opt-out compromise, originally conceived by centrist Democratic Sen. Tom Carper (Del.) and heavily promoted by the liberal Schumer, have not been disclosed by Reid or any other Democrat as they await a Congressional Budget Office analysis of its costs and impact on the healthcare system.
 
But hints dropped by Carper, Schumer and Reid seem to indicate that the misgivings expressed by centrist Democrats may already have been answered by the opt-out proposal, or could be with minimal modifications.
 
“As the members learn the details of what’s in it, they’re going to see that it is a true attempt to be a level playing field, not some covert way of getting single-payer, which as you know is what the right-wing drumbeat has been, and they’re going to be very comfortable with it,” Schumer said.
 
Liberals are finding this hope by teasing out the meaning behind recent comments by their centrist colleagues. “A lot of things that people are objecting to,” Kirsch said, “isn’t necessarily what’s being proposed in the Senate.”
 
Lincoln, for instance, said, “I just think that the most important thing would be if it’s government-funded and government-run. That would be the biggest problem.”
 
After meeting with Reid last week, Landrieu issued a statement saying, in part, “I conveyed to Leader Reid that a number of moderates still were extremely concerned about a government-run, taxpayer-funded, national public plan.”
 
Lieberman has said he opposes a plan that exposes taxpayers to long-term commitments. “It’s going to cost the taxpayers and people that have health insurance now, and if it doesn’t, it’s going to add terribly to our national debt,” he said Tuesday.
 
“Once the actual text of the bill is out,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), “I think we’ll be able to successfully make the case to Sen. Lieberman that there is not a subsidy here and that it is not an entitlement.”
 
“I talked to Joe Lieberman,” Schumer said, “I said, ‘Just keep your options open.’”
 
If the centrists are concerned that the public option would be run by the government or permanently funded by taxpayers, proponents of the opt-out version say there is no reason to worry.
 
According to a description Carper gave to reporters last week, the program receives federal seed money but will be required to sustain itself through premiums. If the public option were to run out of money in future years, Congress would have to take direct action to pump more money into the program.
 
“We don’t want the secretary of Health and Human Services running this operation,” Carper said just before Reid announced he had included the opt-out public option in his bill. “We want to distance the federal government from running whatever nonprofit option is offered and we don’t want to have the federal government there as the financial backstop in case it goes bad.”
 
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Part of the problem, public option supporters say, is a lack of clarity about what they are promoting – ironically because they have floated so many compromises from their original plan to erect a nationwide government insurance program.
 
“There have been a number of theories about what a public option is that have been kicked around,” Whitehouse said. “I think there’s a bit of a function of making sure that everybody’s clear exactly what it is we’re proposing.”
 
Lincoln, under fire from liberal activists and facing a difficult reelection battle in a conservative state, said the fact she has not been able to read the proposal is the reason she cannot take a stand. “I don’t know what it is. I haven’t seen it and I don’t think anybody else has, either, ‘cause I’ve asked several other members,” she said. “I’m not going to vote on anything until I’ve seen it.”
 
These centrists are sensing the momentum in Congress and public opinion shift toward enacting some form of public option, said Ilyse Hogue, spokeswoman for the liberal group MoveOn.org Political Action, which has assailed Democratic centrists such as Lincoln, Landrieu, Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.), along with Lieberman.
 
“They want to go down on the right side,” Hogue said. “They’re hedging their bets to see which side brings the political win.”