Reid set to unveil new public option, breaking Senate impasse on healthcare

A new measure on the public option will be unveiled next week, which Senate Democratic leaders hope will break the logjam on healthcare reform.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who has been tapped by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to come up with a Plan B approach to the public option controversy that has divided Democrats, has been working closely with liberal and conservative Democrats, as well as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

In an interview, Carper acknowledged that Reid’s “opt out” public option bill does not have 60 votes necessary for passage, even though it cleared a procedural hurdle last month.

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If it attracts widespread support, the Carper measure could be added to Reid’s bill, which is expected to be debated on the Senate floor over the next several weeks.

Sensing that his bill may need changes, Reid recently called on Carper and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to come up with new legislative language on the hot-button issue of the public option.

Carper indicated that significant progress has been made and it is a question of when, not if, the new healthcare plan will be unveiled. Carper initially said an outline of his measure could be issued later this week, but later said it is more likely to emerge next week.

Legislative text may not be available next week, Carper said.

“I expect early next week we’ll have something to share — not just with our colleagues, but with the broader community,” Carper told The Hill.
Reid’s office did not comment for this article.

The 62-year-old former governor said he is trying to “thread the needle” between conservative Democrats such as Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and

Independent Joe Lieberman (Conn.), who oppose a public option, and liberal senators such as Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Roland Burris (D-Ill.), who are insisting on it.

Carper, a junior member of the Finance Committee, was tight-lipped on the details of his plan, but noted that he has been talking extensively with Snowe. He pointed out that he served with Snowe, and her husband, former Maine Gov. John McKernan (R), in the House.

Snowe favors a trigger proposal, where a public option would go into effect if the private health insurance market falters. The trigger has been soundly rejected by some liberals in Congress.

Carper has been working on variations of the public option for months. Recently, he has touted a so-called hammer public option that he believes answers centrists' criticisms that the public option in Reid's bill is government-run and government-funded. The public option would kick in for states where insurance companies fail to meet standards of availability and affordability of plans.

Carper's proposal would establish a national public insurance program founded by the government but managed by a non-governmental board. In addition, the plan would be unable to access any taxpayer dollars beyond its initial seed money. This public option would operate alongside private insurance and, potentially, the nonprofit healthcare cooperatives and state-based public plans authorized by Reid's bill.

This plan is fluid and final details are expected to be ironed out in the coming days.

A final vote on the underlying Senate bill “must” happen before the end of the month, Carper said, adding that the upper chamber has been tackling healthcare reform throughout 2009.

Carper said he has spoken “a number of times” with Snowe, who supported Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) healthcare bill, but cast a procedural vote against Reid’s opt out bill before Thanksgiving.

Carper added that he has talked to Lieberman and Lincoln “a fair amount” and is also reaching out to other Republicans.

“It’s unlikely that there will be more than one Republican — but there may be one,” he said, referring to Snowe.

“A public option is not the most important element,” Carper said. “But it’s not unimportant… The question is, if we allow states to do all of those things and there are still states where there’s not very much competition and as a result there’s not very good affordability, what do we do about it?”

While Carper works behind the scenes to win over key centrists, some of the senators he is targeting offered signs Tuesday that they are pleased with a cost analysis released this week that found the Reid’s legislation would accomplish the goal of making insurance cheaper for many and more widely available.

Among those praising the findings in the report by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation were Snowe and Lieberman.

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“I found it generally encouraging,” Lieberman said of the cost analysis. “I think when you consider the fact that Sen. Reid’s proposal covers 30 million more people with insurance than are covered now, it’s quite an accomplishment to be able to do that without raising premiums.”

Though he was pleased with the news about the bill’s effect on premiums, Lieberman emphasized he still opposes the public option.

“The public option is an unnatural and dangerous appendage to healthcare reform,” he said.
 
Jeffrey Young contributed to this article, which was updated at 2:50 p.m. on Dec. 2.