By Alexander Bolton - 11/03/09 01:15 AM EST
Sen. Joe Lieberman has reached a private understanding with Majority Leader Harry Reid that he will not block a final vote on healthcare reform, according to two sources briefed on the matter.
The unpredictable Democrat-turned-Independent last week publicly stated he would join Republicans in filibustering the Democratic legislation after Reid (D-Nev.) announced he had included a government-run health insurance plan in the bill.
“Lieberman keeps assuring Reid that he’s OK,” said one source. “But he’s one of those characters — you never know with Joe.
“Maybe he’s talking tough to get the public option watered down or he’s trying to get some stuff for himself on other topics or on other sections of the legislation,” the source added. “He’s basically trying to be a senator.”
Lieberman’s spokesman said Monday that nothing has changed from last week, when the senator said he would support calling up the bill but would block a final vote.
“Sen. Lieberman has made it clear that he will vote for the motion to proceed to the healthcare bill but will oppose cloture on a final bill if it contains a public option because he believes that it would worsen our national debt problem,” said Lieberman aide Marshall Wittmann.
A spokesman for Reid declined to comment.
Lieberman’s vote is crucial because he likely represents the 60th vote needed to end debate in the Senate. Without him, Reid would be forced to fish on the other side of the aisle for a vote, something that has not come easily this Congress.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the only Republican to vote for any healthcare reform bill in this Congress, has signaled she will likely join Republicans in filibustering the bill because Reid included a public option.
Reid’s staff has told anxious liberals that Lieberman has given the Democratic leader assurances that he will not wreck the reform bill because of Reid’s decision to include the public option, according to two sources briefed on the issue.
As a result, well-connected liberals inside the Beltway who are in touch with Reid’s office have taken a more optimistic view of Lieberman’s position, while activists and bloggers outside the loop have seethed over his statements from last week.
“To put this government-created, government-run insurance company on top of everything else is just asking for trouble for the taxpayer, for the premium payer and for the national debt. I don’t think we need it now,” Lieberman said on Oct. 27, one day after Reid announced he would include a public option in the bill.
Lieberman would still be free to vote against the bill on final passage, as only a simple majority of the chamber is needed and Democrats could afford to lose a few votes in their conference.
Sources attribute Lieberman’s public declaration of opposition as an effort to win concessions for his constituents, which include several major insurance companies based in the state.
Lieberman’s private assurances may explain Reid’s confidence that the maverick lawmaker will support his former party’s bid to pass its signature domestic initiative.
When asked about Lieberman’s threats of opposition last week, Reid praised his colleague.
“I have the greatest confidence in Joe Lieberman’s ability as a legislator,” said Reid. “And he will work with us when this gets on the floor and I’m sure he’ll have some interesting things to do in the way of amendment. But Joe Lieberman is the least of Harry Reid’s problems.”
Liberal leaders who support the public option say they are confident Lieberman, who caucuses with Democrats, will not sink healthcare reform.
“At the end of the day Sen. Lieberman will vote to cut off debate,” said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, a coalition of liberal and labor groups. “He’ll do what he has to do. He’s making a lot of noise.”
Even without the understanding, Lieberman’s liberal colleagues say the healthcare reform legislation will gain a lot of momentum once it lands on the Senate floor and that it would be difficult for any centrist Democrat — even a former Democrat — to block it.
“There will be a different kind of momentum and urgency once this bill is on the floor,” said Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), a strong supporter of the public option, in an interview.
“I hope that any senator in our caucus wouldn’t draw a line in the sand,” Casey added. “There are a lot of parts to this bill and a lot of ways to get to a final vote where someone votes in favor even though up to this point they have been saying they are not on board.
Reid announced last week that he would insert into the healthcare reform bill a government-run insurance program that states could opt out of. The opt-out version of the program was intended to lure balky centrist Democrats. But Lieberman and Snowe quickly declared their opposition.
That stirred speculation that Democrats might have to resort to voting for a government health plan set to a trigger, which would not go into effect unless insurance companies failed to meet certain benchmarks.
But liberal senators and their allies have panned the idea, essentially taking it off the table.
“The insurance companies have had six decades to do this right,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has led the fight in the Senate for a strong government insurance program. “Why do they need time to abuse the public trust? I don’t know why we should give them more time to get this right.”
Hilary Shelton, the director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP, which is part of a coalition of liberal and labor groups fighting for the public option, said he hoped Lieberman would not stand in the way of reform.
Senate observers note that Reid stood up for Lieberman at a crucial point last year when Democratic colleagues wanted to strip his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee. Just before Democratic senators voted on the issue at a closed-door meeting last November, Reid came to Lieberman’s defense.
When reporters later asked Reid whether he could trust Lieberman in the 111th Congress, Reid said: “The answer is yes, I trust Sen. Joe Lieberman.”